The dental hygiene offensive

The dental hygiene offensive

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  • Eau de Botot, the only toothpaste approved by the Paris Academy of Medicine

    CHERET Jules (1836 - 1932)

  • Doctor Georges Viaud in his dental office

    VUILLARD Édouard (1868 - 1940)

  • The boy scout toilet at the Franc Port camp


Eau de Botot, the only toothpaste approved by the Paris Academy of Medicine

© Public domain, Gallica

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Title: Doctor Georges Viaud in his dental office

Author : VUILLARD Édouard (1868 - 1940)

School : Nabis

Creation date : 1914 -

Dimensions: Height 107cm - Width 137cm

Technique and other indications: oil on canvas

Storage location: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Tony QuerrecLink to image

Picture reference: 12-579608 / RF1977-396

Doctor Georges Viaud in his dental office

© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Tony Querrec

The boy scout toilet at the Franc Port camp

© RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Blérancourt) / Gérard Blot

Publication date: April 2020

Historical context

A healthy tooth in a healthy mouth

If the remedies for dental ailments and the smell of the mouth are an integral part of the history of mankind, it was not until the last third of the 19th century.e century for industrial inventions and scientific innovations to revolutionize the relationship with oral health. At the turn of the century, toothpaste was sold as a powder, paste or water; To conquer the public, the inventors compete in imagination in the composition and in the marketing strategy. He was one of the greatest poster artists of the time, famous for his advertisements extolling the shows of the City of Light and he knew the subject: in the 1860s he carried out campaigns for his friend Eugène Rimmel, who installed his perfume store in London and invented mascara there.

The aesthetic concern and the desire to please combine with major advances in the treatment of dental problems without pain. The dentist was probably treating the painter, who dedicated the canvas to his "friend" and sold it to him. The anonymous photographer is probably a person in charge of the camp who took at the very beginning of the 1920s a whole series of photographs on the key stages in the daily life of young men living in the great outdoors.

Image Analysis

A beautiful smile is priceless

At first glance, the passer-by of fin-de-siècle Paris will have recognized the touch of Chéret: a stretched vertical format poster, bright colors, an alluring woman and varied lettering infusing dynamism into this frozen image. As often with him, the title - here the name of the product - stands out at the top, in capital letters in relief, in red. This color is echoed by the facsimile of Botot's signature at the bottom right, which redoubles the information by giving it both an official and historical character. The prestigious address indicated (rue de la Paix) and the words "approved by the Paris Academy of Medicine" instills the idea that this product is designed for the elite of the capital. The young woman serving as a model looks at the passer-by with eyes turned to our left, which therefore invite reading to the right and towards her mouth, which is only a touch of brilliant white between two bright crimson lips. Her Venetian blonde color matches the canary yellow of her light dress with bold pleats, worn very low to the bust and revealing the upper part of the breasts. She holds between her delicate hands, where the fingers are almost a line, a toothbrush with an ivory handle and the famous Eau, at the time of orange shade - subtle reminder of the two main primary colors chosen by the 'artist. Unlike many advertising drawings, the bottle is represented to scale: placed in the center of the composition, it is the only precise detail in an ocean of suggestion.

Vuillard quickly specialized in personal portraits and interior scenes. Doctor Viau in his dental office does not depart from this habit of the Nabi painter. In the tradition of this movement, he offers a strong composition with horizontal and vertical lines forming the backdrop and guiding the gaze towards the center of the scene. There, the white coat contaminated by the pastel shades of the cabinet, the doctor stands and prepares to provide care to Annette Roussel, the painter's 16-year-old niece. Her brown suit is one with the articulated dentist chair. Her dark, closed fists connote fear, as the caregiver's hands frame the patient's head for protection. The one on the right, which holds a precision tool, is located in the center of the composition around which a first circle is formed with the two faces that stand out in chiaroscuro. The second circle brings together the clues from Georges Viau's two occupations: medical art and art patronage. The dentist's tablet on the left almost forms an abstract sculpture; the medication table on the right forms a small still life inside the painting. She makes the transition with the two canvases hanging on the wall, intimate pieces from the Viau collection.

Facing the goal, the young French member of the scout movement occupies the front of an open-air stage that can be confusedly seen in the blur behind him. Other teens wearing the same white undershirts, khaki shorts, fitted belts are standing at the start of the day. Messy hair, arms sculpted by exercise, high gaze, he embodies good physical health. He maintains this body in shape thanks to a brush with a wooden handle operated with the right hand, a tube of toothpaste held in the left hand with the iron cup which will allow him to rinse his mouth. It is likely that the scene will be replayed, and that the sketched smile is as much about brushing the teeth as it is about the presence of the camera.


To the fullest

Dental Water, invented by Edme François Julien Botot, immediately set an example at the top of the social pyramid: he was a dental surgeon and personal physician to King Louis XV. As early as 1777, the Faculty recognized the role of the product in teeth whitening and gum fortification. The mixture of brandy and several essential oils had to be diluted a few drops in a glass of water, which varied greatly over time. In 1896, Eau de Botot faced competition from toothpaste, especially that of Doctor Pierre (poster by Louis-Maurice Boutet de Monvel in 1894). But it was for her seniority and was widespread in the more affluent layers, especially among women, who were distinguished from the people by their perfumed smell from feet to mouth. The choice of Chéret should facilitate the assimilation between care of his person and the art of appearing in good Parisian society which has fun.

The adapted furniture painted by Vuillard is the ultimate in technical equipment and comfort for the wealthy, whose invention dates back to the 1860s in the United States. Medical specialization has been sanctioned since 1892 with a state diploma, the dental office becomes a place protected from view where precision surgery is performed. Oral health is gradually democratizing, hygienists rely in particular on the school of the Third Republic to spread new standards; Pasteur's work on microbes disseminates a convincing explanatory model. Despite the petition of the dentist Édouard Taillebois in 1881, systematic screening in schools was not implemented until the 1930s. Recourse to the dentist therefore remained a private matter and depended on resources. If Annette Roussel, daughter of a Nabi painter, had not been Vuillard's niece (and favorite subject), she would probably never have been able to afford the services of Dr Viau in her office located at 109 boulevard Malesherbes. . Washing your teeth is becoming a habit, and having a healthy dentition is still a luxury.

Caring for soldiers has spread to all social strata and regions a practice that is already widespread in the upper classes. Military medics' "prophylactic warfare" did not ignore the toothaches that often knocked malnourished soldiers out of action. The scout movement created by Lord Robert Baden-Powell in 1907 spread to France in 1910, and it took on particular vigor in the postwar years. The photo of the anonymous teenager is the only one in the series that is a unique portrait. But it is less about individualizing than about representing a type of situation, a personal command representative of the whole ideology of Scouting. Collective discipline requires individual mastery; the body is a tool that must be taken care of with the right gestures and know how to use it wisely; the rules of life are essential in an environment stripped of urban comfort. By brandishing his brush in sanitary attention, the Boy Scout is the perfect advertisement for the movement.

  • hygiene
  • hygienism
  • health
  • medicine
  • Louis XV
  • Pastor (Louis)
  • Third Republic
  • Scouting


The Belle Époque by Jules Chéret, from poster to decor, Paris, Decorative Arts, 2010.

Guy Cogeval, Edouard Vuillard, Paris, Meeting of National Museums, 2003.

Clement David, Oral hygiene from the 17th to the 19th century in France, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2010.

Christian Guérin, Utopia Scouts de France. History of a collective, Catholic and social identity. (1920-1995), Paris, Fayard, 1997.

To cite this article

Alexandre SUMPF, "The dental hygiene offensive"

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