Friday, July 05, 2013

Napoleon's hand-in-waistcoat pose

I bet you have wondered why Napoleon Bonaparte is so often depicted with his hand stuck in his waistcoat. Again, we must return to the shit-scared aristocracy after the French Revolution. This was a time when it was very bad taste to dress in a foppish way.

In England, the aristocracy sought to redefine itself as strong and patriotic – "don't guillotine me, bro!" – through associating itself with such social institutions as the public school, arts patronage, organised fox-hunting and the reform of the armed forces. Each of these developed their own specific costumes.

Beau Brummell's rise began as an Eton schoolboy; his first sartorial innovation was, apparently, to add a gold buckle to the traditional Eton white cravat. He then took his style to Oxford, and finally became an officer in the Prince Regent's own regiment, the Tenth Royal Hussars.

We should perhaps not judge Pride and Prejudice's silly Kitty and Lydia Bennet too harshly for lusting after soldiers, because the Napoleonic-era military were the rock stars of the day, and their uniform was an exercise in what today we might call 'swag'. Beautifully tailored, brightly coloured and decorated with sashes, gold buttons, and ornate piping, fringing and braid, it was designed to look dashing and impressive, no matter how inadequate the body of the wearer.

An 1830 English instructional pamphlet offers specific ways in which military uniforms could camouflage an unimpressive physique: "an insignificant head" hidden under a helmet; a coat "padded well in every direction"; and the sheathing of "bandy legs, or knock knees" in stiff, thigh-high leather boots with two-inch heels!

Perhaps the transformation wrought by this finery is partly responsible for that genre of heroic military portraits depicting soldiers with their hands tucked in their waistcoats. They look almost vulnerable, as if wanting to reassure themselves their bodies are still there!

The 'hand-in-waistcoat' pose is most associated with Napoleon, but by his ascendance it was already an English portraiture cliché – one artist was accused of using it to hide his inability to paint hands! The gesture of touching the body through a suit is associated with "manly boldness tempered with modesty", as François Nivelon puts it in his 1738 etiquette guide, A Book Of Genteel Behaviour.

It appears so often that this loopy conspiracy-theory website (and other similar sites) identifies it as a secret Freemason signal: the "sign of the Master of the Second Veil". Apparently, Napoleon helped revive the Knights Templar, and there are pictures of other known Freemasons posing like this, clearly signifying their membership to anyone in the know!

I am going to be generous and allow that this coded meaning could be legit. After all, Exodus 4:6 describes God instructing Moses to stick his hand "into thy bosom" (in other translations, into his robe or his cloak), bringing it out all white and leprous, then sticking it back in again and retrieving it whole and unharmed. It's a miraculous sign for Moses to wow the Israelites with in case they are skeptical that he is truly God's chief dude. So the pose could signify faith in God's power.

This is like something from The Sign and the Seal, the ridiculous conspiracy-theory book I have been struggling through. I was hoping it would be a ripping Indiana Jones-style yarn, but I kind of gave up halfway when the author mentioned Atlantis.

I think it's more convincing to trace the pose, as Arline Miller has done, to the spirit of classicism that prevailed in 18th- and early 19th-century Europe. The pose is about re-infusing the male body with classicist dignity and honesty after an era of baroque dissipation.

Many Georgian and Regency artists copied the pose from ancient Greek and Roman statues; the 4th century BC actor and orator Aeschines of Macedon had argued it was ill-mannered to speak with one's arm outside the toga.

Basically, Aeschines' beef was that most politicians of his generation didn't behave with dignity: as Paul Zanker writes in The Mask of Socrates, "they no longer observed the traditional rules of conduct but gesticulated wildly for dramatic effect, just as the demagogue Kleon had been accused of doing in the late fifth century."

For those not down with ancient Athenian political personalities, Kleon was the hawkish politician who vigorously prosecuted the Peloponnesian War after the death of the cultured, cautious Pericles. Kleon was anti-intellectual, anti-elitist, and boy did he hate the Spartans. He had a forceful, hectoring oratorial style; both the dramatist Aristophanes and the historian Thucydides wrote unflatteringly about him. Clearly Kleon was still disliked a century later, if Aeschines still used him as an example of how not to speak.

Here's a Roman copy of a Greek statue of dramatist Sophocles, c330BC. It's strikingly similar to the statue of Aeschines:

Do NOT be telling me that these guys were Freemasons. (Maybe Freemasonry originated in Atlantis, LOL.) Doesn't it make more sense to imagine that later statesmen adopted the pose to lend them classical gravitas?

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