The Purpose Behind Napoleon’s Hand In His Shirt


Military Giant

Napoleon Bonaparte is widely known for how short he was, but did you know that he was a military giant? He had great ambitions, that is why he was one of the best military leaders of all time.

But not much is known about him. One of the most pervasive questions is: why did he always hide his hand in his shirts and jackets? What was he trying to hide?

A Hidden Secret

The Print Collector – Getty Images

If you look through the historic portraits of Napoleon, you’ll begin to notice it more and more – his right hand is always conspicuously absent, maddeningly tucked away in his coat.

Was he trying to hide something that would damage his reputation? Or was the hidden hand actually a secret message for his enemies or friends? When historians looked deeper into the strange stance, their findings surprised everyone.

A Popular Subject

Wikimedia Commons

It’s no secret that Napoleon was the subject of many paintings – the one-time Emperor of the French posed for dozens of them during his lifetime.

But the way he always ensured his hand was hidden from view has been the subject of many bizarre rumors over the years. So, what was the truth behind his missing right hand?

At The Heart Of It All

Jacques-Louis David – Wikimedia Commons

The most well-known example of Napoleon’s strange stance is by the French artist Jacques-Louis David. Painted in 1812, it is one of the most iconic images of the man in history.

At the time it was painted, Napoleon was the Emperor of the French. This is why this image is at the heart of a 200-year old mystery.

In All His Glory

Getty Images

Although the painting, titled The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, was not painted from life, the artist superbly captured the great leader’s stately glory.

The portrait was commissioned by the Scottish politician Alexander Hamilton. Napoleon was so impressed when he saw the portrait that he said: “You have understood me, my dear David.” But just what, exactly, had the artist understood?


Jacques-Louis David – Wikimedia Commons

Historians have spent years pouring over the famous portrait of Napoleon and trying to decipher its contents. From the down-to-the-last-detail recreation of Napoleon’s study in Paris to the symbolism that served as propaganda to depict Napoleon as the most powerful leader in the world.

But the painting’s most notable detail is the man’s bizarre pose – with his right hand tucked into his jacket. But it was this pose that would be mysteriously depicted again and again.

Always Missing

Hulton Archive – Getty Images

Indeed, Napoleon’s right hand is missing from every portrait – and artists continued to depict him this way even long after his death in 1821. But why?

Scholars now believe that Napoleon’s small stature was exaggerated by his enemies who would do anything to ridicule him. So, then, could the missing hand also be a piece of propaganda?

Solving The Mystery

Getty Images – Universal History Archive

Although the mysteries about Napoleon’s true height and cause of death are still matters of debate among historians and scholars, one of the most pervasive mysteries about the great man has been uncovered.

Researchers poured over history books and records until they unearthed the truth about Napoleon’s missing right hand. The answer surprised everyone.

A Deformity?

Getty Images

Today, many people believe that Napoleon had a deformity in his right hand – whether he sustained an injury in battle or was born with a birth defect.

That would be the perfect solution to the 200-year old puzzle. Alas, the real reason Napoleon always hid his hand wasn’t that simple, and no evidence was found to support this theory.

A Strange Habit?

VCG Wilson – Corbis via Getty Images

Another theory that claims to solve the mystery is that Napoleon had a habit of holding his stomach in pain.

It would make sense that such a common stance for the man would then make its way into all the portraits of him. And, unlike the theory that his right hand was deformed, there is some compelling evidence for this claim.

Half-Truths And Full Lies

Getty Images

Like many famous figures throughout history, the legacy Napoleon left behind was shrouded in some mystery. Details about his actual height and the mysterious circumstances around his death on the remote island of Saint Helena remain murky.

While many accept that Napoleon’s cause of death was stomach cancer, others believe something more sinister: he was poisoned.

Stomach Cancer?

The Print Collector – Heritage Images via Getty Images

It’s no secret that Napoleon’s father succumbed to stomach cancer in 1785. And, during 1817, Napoleon himself began to complain of a similar symptom. Had Napoleon developed a habit of clutching his stomach in an attempt to relieve the pain?

Unfortunately, even if this was true, it’s highly unlikely that all the artists who painted him would include this gesture in their portraits. Something else was going on.

A Coded Message?

nwitimestv – YouTube

Some people have another, stranger theory about Napoleon’s hidden hand. Speculations have run wild over the years, with people claiming that Napoleon’s bizarre stance was actually meant to serve as a coded message aimed at his friends or enemies.

Of course, this view is generally regarded as a conspiratory theory. So, if Napoleon didn’t have a deformity and the gesture wasn’t from pain, and it wasn’t a hidden message, just what was it?

The Truth

Getty Images

The truth is actually far simpler than any of the theories put forward over the years. In fact, references to this same stance can be found as early as the 6th century B.C.

The fact of the matter is that Napoleon’s stance is emulating a common pose for leaders that goes all the way back to ancient Greece.

Concealing Hands

Merry-Joseph Blondel – Wikimedia Commons

According to Reader’s Digest, it was considered rude in Ancient Greece to speak in public without concealing one’s hands.

And statues from that time all depict the same stance Napoleon adopted: the subject’s hands were all concealed in the folds of their clothes. However, this particular stance wasn’t something that Napoleon himself had insisted on.


Jastrow – Wikimedia Commons

One famous statue that had stood on Salamis Island off the coast of Greece – a likeness of the poet and politician Solon – also exhibits this pose.

As Aeschines the orator explained in 346 B.C.: “To speak with the arm outside the cloak… was regarded then as an ill-mannered thing, and they carefully refrained from doing it.”

Body Language

Mondadori Portfolio – Getty Images

In 346 B.C., however, the hand-hiding pose had faded into obscurity and was no longer fashionable. The famous pose was destined to languish for another 1,300 years.

That was until the 18th century, when English painters began to learn art theory. Portrait artists were especially interested in the body language and poise of their subjects.

The Artists

Heritage Art – Heritage Images via Getty Images

In the 1700s, English painters came across the statues of ancient Greece and were struck with inspiration.

Wanting to give their subjects dignified and noble poses, they replicated the famous stance from so long ago – resulting in a slew of portraits from that time with the subjects all hiding their hands. Before long, the pose spread like wildfire across Europe.


Heritage Art – Heritage Images via Getty Images

In the 1995 essay by Arline Meyer, we can find an explanation for the appeal of the famous “hidden hand” pose in the 1800s.

The essay, titled “Re-dressing Classical Statuary: The Eighteenth-Century “Hand-in-Waistcoat” Portrait,” described the pose as a way to indicate that a portrait’s subject was of “good humor and suitably elevated in character.”

Life Imitating Art

Charles Willson Peale – Wikimedia Commons

But, as the pose was being revived in portraits, by artists, it moved from the art world into the real world. Life was beginning to imitate art.

The “hand-in-waistcoat” stance, according to Arline Meyer, became “a common stance for men of breeding,” and a way to indicate one’s status in English society. Even a widely-read 1738 book on etiquette mentioned this bizarre pose.

Manliness And Modesty

Louis Buvelot – Wikimedia Commons – Mathew Brady – Wikimedia Commons

The popular etiquette book read: “Keeping a hand in one’s coat was key to posturing oneself with manly boldness, tempered with becoming modesty.”

But, Meyer also claims that – ironically – the upper echelons of British society also adopted the pose in order to appear “without affectation” to the lower classes. But when did the revival of such an old trend actually start?

First Appearance

Godfrey Kneller – Wikimedia Commons – Jonathan Richardson – Wikimedia Commons

One of the first appearances of the “hand-in-waistcoat” pose was in a self-portrait by the famous English artist Godfrey Kneller.

25 years later, Jonathan Richardson – a theorist and painter – put his own spin on the famous pose. Richardson painted a portrait of the future politician, Horace Walpole, who adopted the bizarre stance.


Joshua Reynolds – Wikimedia Commons

In Jonathan Richardson’s portrait of Horace Walpole, the future politician – who was just a student at the time – depicts him with his left hand out of view, lightly tucked inside his orange waistcoat.

As if signaling the politician’s future, Walpole does indeed appear statesmanlike. Jonathan Richardson’s portrait was significant because it showed that he was the first English artist to be heavily influenced by Ancient Greece.

The Difficulty Of Painting Hands

Robert Home – National Portrait Gallery – Wikimedia Commons – Wikimedia Commons – via Wikimedia Commons

Throughout the 18th century, the famous “hand-in-waistcoat” pose appeared in portraits again and again.

One artist, Thomas Hudson, actually used this pose so often in his work that many historians believe he was taking a shortcut so he wouldn’t have to paint his subjects’ hands. All the while, English men in high society also strove to present the same stance.

Not Just The English

Pietro Antonio Lorenzoni – Wikimedia Commons – Charles Willson Peale – Wikimedia Commons

The “hand-in-waistcoat” pose wasn’t just adopted by English artists and the English men of high society. Other artists further afield also began to catch on to the craze.

Prominent artists Francisco de Goya, French Jean-Baptiste Perronneau, and Swiss Jean-Étienne Liotard also began to produce portraits where their subjects held the famous stance.


Sepia Times – Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Mozart’s father even commissioned a portrait of his children in the mid-18th century – and they were also holding a stance similar to the famous “hand-in-waistcoat” pose.

George Washington is depicted in multiple portraits concealing his hand, too. However, the portraits of Napoleon were the only ones that enjoyed widespread and lasting fame.

Out Of Fashion

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres – Wikimedia Commons

But, understandable confusion arises in historians familiar with the famous pose: why was Napoleon depicted in this manner so much later than the others?

His portraits were commissioned an entire century after the “hand-in-waistcoat” trend peaked. By then, the pose had actually gone out of fashion. The pose was even considered passe by the artists of the time, and they had long moved onto other trends in art.

Powerful Propaganda

Fine Art Images – Heritage Images – Getty Images

Napoleon was a man who understood the power of propaganda. Although all his enemies depicted him as short and weak, he was determined to represent himself in a more powerful and dignified manner.

After the French artist Jacques-Louis David Painted Napoleon’s portrait in 1812 – to much critical acclaim – the iconic portrait forever set the bar.

His Personal Brand

Heritage Art – Heritage Images via Getty Images

The truth is simple: Napoleon was building his personal brand with the portraits he commissioned. After Jacques-Louis David’s portrait, the “hand-in-waistcoat” pose became synonymous with the military giant.

Napoleon appreciated the air of power the pose suggested, even though it was no longer fashionable. But, in a way, Napoleon was once again ahead of his time.

Coming Around Again

John Jabez Edwin Mayal – Wikimedia Commons

Like all good trends, the “hand-in-waistcoat” pose experienced a third revival just a few decades after Napoleon’s death.

When photography began to replace painting as the preferred portrait medium, the famous pose that was favored by ancient Greece and 18th-century English noblemen got a new lease on life. New historical figures like Karl Marx, Samuel Colt, and countless others adopted the stance once again.