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Why is Napoleon depicted with his hand in his coat?

By Tom Holmberg

Many theories have been presented as to why Napoleon is traditionally depicted with his hand in his waistcoat. Some of these theories include: that he had a stomach ulcer, he was winding his watch, he had an itchy skin disease, that in his era it was impolite to put your hands in your pockets, he had breast cancer, he had a deformed hand, he kept a perfumed sachet in his vest that he'd sniff surreptitiously, and that painters don't like to paint hands. A simpler and more elegant theory is contained in an article entitled, "Re-Dressing Classical Statuary: The Eighteenth-Century 'Hand-in-Waistcoat' Portrait." by Arline Meyer. Art Bulletin (College Art Association of America), Vol. 77, No.2, March 1995, p.45-64. Meyer points out that the 'hand-in' portrait type appeared with "relentless frequency" during the eighteenth century and became almost a cliched pose in portrait painting. The pose was used so often by portraitists that one was even accused of not knowing how to paint hands. "In real life," Meyer observes, "the 'hand-held-in' was a common stance for men of breeding." Meyer goes on to give many examples of this posture in painted portraits dating from the early and middle 1700s, well before Napoleon's birth. In 1738 Francois Nivelon published A Book Of Genteel Behavior describing the "hand-in-waistcoat" posture as signifying "manly boldness tempered with modesty." Meyer says that the hidden hand was a feature of some statues of the ancient Greeks and Romans and that later painters based their poses on classical models. The pose was recommended by certain classical writers as a useful posture for orators. Aeschines of Macedon (390-331 B.C.), an actor, orator and founder of a school of rhetoric, who wrote an important book on oratory, postulated that speaking with one's arm outside the toga was considered ill-mannered. A number of textbooks on oratory published in the eighteenth century, following Aeschines, recommended this gesture. Although Meyer doesn't mention it, it is possible that the great French actor Talma, who reportedly trained Napoleon in Imperial comportment, may have been familiar with these works.

Meyer concludes with an addendum on Napoleon: "Today the 'hand-in' gesture is, of course, best known from its personalized revival in the nineteenth century. Surely most people would recognize the pose as Napoleon's inimitable trademark — which David rendered indelible in his commanding portrait of 1812 ["Napoleon in his Study"]... It is not surprising that when Napoleon's reputation plummeted, a subtly arched postural inflection made the gesture decidedly imperious... The enduring French association is in fact somewhat ironic, in that the gesture had a voguish run as an English portrait convention long before it became Napoleon's quasi-military emblem."

The painting by Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), "Napoleon in his Study", the most famous expression of Napoleon in his classic pose, was not painted for the Emperor, but was commissioned by a Scottish nobleman, Alexander Douglas, an admirer of Napoleon. Napoleon did not sit for the portrait, so David painted it from memory. Etienne Delecluze, a student and early biographer of David's, opined that the painting was a "poor likeness" and "too ideal." Napoleon, however, told the artist, "You have understood me, my dear David."

With input from: David Christian-Edwards


Updated July 2013

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