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Napoleon in His Study, by Jacques Louis David, 1812

Napoleon in His Study, by Jacques Louis David, 1812

Have you ever wondered what men are hiding inside their waist coats in all those classical portraits?

You know what I’m talking about, right? All those stately portraits from the 18th and 19th century where men are posed with their right hand tucked inside their clothing. It seems rather odd to me. Who really stands that way? What could they be hiding? Perhaps a snack in case the portrait session lasted too long? Maybe a weapon in case the artist didn’t portray them in a favorable manner? Some have suggested that the portrait’s subject had an ulcer or other stomach ailment, or perhaps he is winding his watch or scratching an itch.

It seems the real reason is quite simple.

Early in the 18th century, English portrait artists began looking to classical orators and the postures used in ancient Greek and Roman statuary for their inspiration.  The hidden-hand pose, according to the Greeks, conveyed calm assurance and became popular among the nation’s statesmen. In fact, many Greeks considered it rude to speak with your hands outside of your clothing especially when discussing matters of state.

Statue of Aeschines, Greek Orator

Statue of Aeschines, Greek Orator

By the time of Aeschines, a famous Greek statesman and orator, the tradition had gone out of vogue. But in his speech, Against Timarchus (346 B.C.), Aeschines challenges Timarchus and all Greek statesmen to reinstate the custom:

“And so decorous were those public men of old, Pericles [495-429 B.C.], Themistocles [524-459 B.C.], and Aristeides [530-468 B.C.] (who was called by a name most unlike that by which Timarchus here is called), that to speak with the arm outside the cloak, as we all do nowadays as a matter of course, was regarded then as an ill-mannered thing, and they carefully refrained from doing it. And I can point to a piece of evidence which seems to me very weighty and tangible. I am sure you have all sailed over to Salamis, and have seen the statue of Solon [638-558 B.C.] there. You can therefore yourselves bear witness that in the statue that is set up in the Salaminian market-place Solon stands with his arm inside his cloak. Now this is a reminiscence, fellow citizens, and an imitation of the posture of Solon, showing his customary bearing as he used to address the people of Athens.”

Marquis de Layfayette, portrait by Charles Wilson Peale

Marquis de Lafayette, portrait by Charles Wilson Peale

While Napoleon’s portrait by Jacques Louis David may be the most iconic depiction of a “hidden hand” portrait, the fad had been revived nearly a hundred years earlier. Francois Nivelon’s A Book Of Genteel Behavior of 1738 states the hand-inside-vest pose denoted “manly boldness tempered with modesty.” It seems the English elite liked this portrayal of themselves and began commissioning artists to paint them in the revived Greek pose. In her essay,”Re-Dressing Classical Statuary: The Eighteenth-Century ‘Hand-in-Waistcoat’ Portrait,” Arline Meyer notes the pose being used in eighteenth century British portraiture as a sign of the sitter’s breeding. The gesture became used so frequently that people questioned whether or not the artists were even capable of painting hands.

Photograph by Mathew Brady

Photograph by Mathew Brady

Even with the advent of photography, the stance continued to remain popular. Although usually photographed in a seated position, “hand-in-pocket” images can be found of American weapons inventor Samuel Colt, author of The Communist Manifesto Karl Marx, and many civil war general including Major Generals George B. McClellan, Ambrose Burnside and William Tecumseh Sherman. The practice fell out of favor by the end of the 19th century, although it was still occasionally used in the 20th century, most famously by  Joseph Stalin.

With the introduction of smart phones and their ability to take photos anywhere at anytime, do you think we’ve lost an ere of respectability in the way we represent ourselves in photos today?