If the name of Napoleon Bonaparte should come up in a game of charades, we all know what to do: stand up with one foot in front of the other, stick a hand into our shirt, and consider the round won. Yet the recognition of this pose as distinctively Napoleonic may not be as wide as we assume, or so Coleman Lowndes discovered in the research for the video above, “Napoleon’s Missing Hand, Explained.” Asked to act out the image of Napoleon, not all of Lowndes colleagues at Vox tried to evoke his hand in his waistcoat, opting instead for grand posturing and an approximation of the (probably apocryphal) modest stature for which that posturing supposedly compensated. Yet enough of us still picture Napoleon hand-in-waistcoat that we might well wonder: how did that image take shape in the first place?
Representations of the most famous statesman in all French history, from paintings made in his life time to Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, include countless examples of the pose. This has given rise to bodily-oriented speculations — a manual deformity, internal organs pained by the cancer that killed him — but the form came with historical precedent.
“Concealing a hand in one’s coat was a portraiture cliche long before Napoleon was painted that way in the early 1800s,” says Lowndes, in reference to Jacques-Louis David’s The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, a portrait definitive enough to head up Napoleon’s Wikipedia entry. Notables previously depicted with one conspicuously hidden hand include George Washington, Mozart, and Francisco Pizarro.
Even ancient Greek orator Aeschines “claimed that restricting the movement of one hand was the proper way to speak in public.” According to one 18th-century British etiquette guide, “keeping a hand in one’s coat was key to posturing oneself with manly boldness, tempered with becoming modesty.” It eventually became common enough to lose its high status, until David captured Napoleon’s use of it in his masterly propagandistic portrait. But the extent we think of Napoleon keeping a hand perpetually in his waistcoat today surely owes much to the many caricaturists and parody artists who took up the trope, including Charlie Chaplin — who, after trying a mustache and bowler hat for a role, knew what it was to be turned iconic by a seemingly minor stylistic choice.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.