Ask a group of people to describe Napoleon Bonaparte’s physical appearance and chances are the same two things will come up: he was short – so short that contemporary British cartoonists delighted in depicting him as a pint-sized figure called ‘Little Boney’, in fact – and that he would always walk around with his right hand tucked in between the buttons of his shirt, waistcoat or jacket. They may add something about his hat and looking grumpy after his defeat at the battle of Waterloo.
That distinctive pose certainly featured on numerous portraits of the emperor no matter what he was doing, from standing with quiet dignity in his study to retreating from his disastrous Russian campaign. It has been claimed, based on no evidence, that Napoleon hid his hand because it had been deformed in battle. There’s another idea that he was constantly pressing on his stomach to alleviate his chronic pain, which at least makes more sense as he is thought to have succumbed, in 1821, to stomach cancer.
Did Napoleon lose a hand?
But the truth behind the look has little to do with Napoleon at all, and more to do with portraiture in the 18th and 19th centuries. Concealing a hand in a shirt became a common pose in paintings as a symbol of statesmanlike nobility and restraint. According to a 1737 book on etiquette, The Rudiments of Genteel Behaviour by François Nivelon, it symbolised “manly boldness tempered with modesty”. That idea may go back as far as ancient Greece, when eminent orator Aeschines declared that speaking with an arm inside one’s cloak was a sign of modesty.
Happy to take inspiration from antiquity, soon most men of the era, and some women, were sporting the one-handed pose when sitting for their portraits, including George Washington and Mozart. It is also worth noting that hands are devilishly tricky to paint well, so perhaps hiding one relieved some of the pressure for, let’s say, lesser-talented artists. Hiding a hand actually became so ubiquitous that its symbolism started to wane until Napoleon came along and grasped it with… both hands.
Napoleon understood the importance of image better than most – at his resplendent coronation as emperor in 1804, he crowned himself to signify that he had risen through his own merit. The pose had it all: the dignity of a statesman tempered with the modesty of a hard-working leader.
He did not choose it. In fact, he did not even sit for what is now the most famous depiction of him, Jacques-Louis David’s 1812 painting of Napoleon in his study. But when he saw that work, Napoleon reportedly declared, “You have understood me, my dear David,” and the hand-in-shirt became forevermore associated with him.
It remained a mainstay of portraiture long after Napoleon had been shipped off to exile on St Helena, seen all the way through to the advent of photography.
Jonny Wilkes is a freelance writer specialising in history
This content was first published by HistoryExtra in 2021