The Ecphorizer

How Do They Spell Relief In Austerlitz?
Gareth Penn

Issue #23 (July 1983)

What was Napoleon's hand doing inside his ccoat?

At the beginning of The Hundred Days, Napoleon was observed by the Englishman John Cam Hobhouse, who described him as follows:

"His paunch protrudes so far that one can see his linen beneath his waistcoat. He generally keeps his hands clasped

National heroes often get stuck with characteristic poses by painters.

behind his back or in front, but sometimes he unclasps them in order to rub his nose, take a few pinches of snuff, and look at his watch."

[quoteright]Did you notice? His hand wasn't tucked in his waistcoat. Whenever you dress up as Bonaparte for Mardi Gras, you tuck in one hand. That's how they'll know you're supposed to be Napoleon. That and the sideways hat.

To judge by contemporary depictions of Napoleon by those who knew him in life, both graphic and verbal, he never struck the pose that is now so characteristic of him. The only pictures of him taken from life that show him that way are the portrait as First Consul painted by Ingres in 1803 and the David portrait as Emperor in 1810. Curiously, Ingres shows him with the left hand tucked in. In the David portrait, it's the right hand.

Portraitists demand that their subjects do something with their hands other than let them hang down limp at their sides. Ingres had studied under David and may have picked up the pose from him. More likely, David intended the 1810 portrait to repeat the pose in order to underscore the contrast between the two phases in his subject's life. The 1803 painting is of a man in the full flush of youth, lean, vigorous, zestful. By 1810, he is putting on weight, balding, obviously suffering from the strain of too much greatness.

In any case, these two portraits are the only authentic sources for the traditional pose. They were both justly famous. And they were so well-known that when it came time to trinketize Napoleon, the pose was copied ad infinitum. He appeared on cookware, bookends, paperweights, snuff boxes, and pocket-handkerchiefs, always with the sideways hat and the tucked-in hand. The illustrator Raffet even did a picture of Little Napoleon in the bosom of his famiglia back home on Corsica, showing the eight-year-old future Emperor wearing a little sideways hat and a little military tunic, into which he tucked his little hand to rest on his little tummy.

It has been suggested that Napoleon was massaging a sore spot. For a century and a half, it has been believed that he died of stomach cancer. Revisionists have recently produced evidence that suggests instead that he was murdered with arsenic. At all events, he died 18 years post-Ingres-portrait and 45 years post-time-of-Baffet-illustration. There is no reason, then, to explain the tucked-in hand with any kind of physical affliction.

National heroes often get stuck with characteristic poses by painters. Anyone who stops to think about it realizes that George Washington did not live to the ripe old age of 67 by standing up in boats. But that is how the German painter Emanuel Leutze shows him crossing the Delaware (in the wrong direction) for his rendezvous with the redcoats at Trenton. Leutze was a fair painter, but he didn't know the first thing about boating safety (or geography, either).

There are numerous examples of historical cliches created out of the whole cloth by painters. For instance, the "thumbs-down" gesture meaning death for the defeated Roman gladiators was invented by a modern French painter, Jean Leon Gerome, but it is commonly accepted as historical fact. The power of the urge to imitate came home to me with particular force when my former employers saw fit to exhibit an 8x15-foot hooked rug showing Leonardo's version of The Last Supper directly opposite the desk where I worked. I was able to study it in great detail because of the physical difficulty involved in averting my eyes from it. There is, it appears, no other way of depicting the event.

Monks in Byzantine Greece spent much of their time painting icons. The conventions of iconography were set forth in manuals which prescribed, among other things, what poses and gestures to give to which Biblical figures, so that they could be readily identified. It seems quaint in a medieval Greek monastery setting, but the practice is just as scrupulously followed by modern illustrators and painters. Instead of following a manual, they follow another illustrator whose depiction of a statesman or historical event has proven successful. And it trivializes the subject. Think of Marines-raising-the-flag-on-Iwo-Jima bookends, for instance.

There are leading personalities who strike what they hope will prove to be characteristic poses that will wind up in the Great Hooked Rug of History. Richard Nixon comes to mind, with his double-V salute, itself a cliche via the peace movement out of Winston Churchill, and his furtive glances and nervous smile, as if on the lookout to see if anybody notices his dislocated shoulder-pads. And Adolf Hitler is on record as advising Hermann Goering not to be photographed while smoking a cigar for that same reason. Churchill never lost any sleep worrying about being immortalized with a stogey in his mouth. Maybe that's why he won the war. 

Gareth Penn, our own nemesis of all evil, was once an artillery surveyor for the U. S. Army.  He has evidently used his military skills to zero in on the Zodiac killer.

More Articles by Gareth Penn

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