Napoleon Conquered a Pose and Propaganda by Hiding His Hand in His Waistcoat

Jamie Lerner - Author

Nov. 30 2023, Published 12:27 p.m. ET

Napoleon Bonaparte hiding his hand in his waistcoat
Source: Getty Images

The Gist:

  • Napoleon's iconic hand-in-waistcoat pose, popularized by Jacques-Louis David in 1812, aimed to present him as a calm and approachable leader.

  • The strategic use of this pose served as a propaganda tool to counter Napoleon's reputation as an ill-tempered leader, aligning with historical ideals of noble public speaking with minimal hand movements.

  • Various theories, from fashion trends to artistic convenience, surround the reason behind Napoleon's hidden hand, debunking rumors of battle injuries and highlighting a combination of artistic choice and strategic communication.

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In today’s world, it’s rare to look at a portrait of a long-dead military figure and know exactly who it is, but thanks to his common stance with his hand in his waistcoat, Napoleon Bonaparte is unmistakable. And now that Napoleon, starring Joaquin Phoenix as the title character, is out, the historical figure is more top of mind than ever.

Napoleon gained notoriety by leading a military throughout Europe, conquering different regions, and changing geopolitics for generations. But he may be most known for his classic portrait pose, hiding his hand in his waistcoat. But why did he do this?

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Napoleon Bonaparte sitting in a chair and hiding his hand
Source: Getty Images

Napoleon most likely hid his hand to elude calmness.

In various accounts, Napoleon was known as an ill-tempered, authoritarian leader. So to elicit an air of cool confidence, a portrait was painted of Napoleon in his study with his hand in his shirt. However, Napoleon didn't even pose for the well-known portrait. Painted by Jacques-Louis David in 1812, the artist knew it was important to show Napoleon as a mild-mannered, modest, and hard-working leader.

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When he saw the painting, Napoleon allegedly said to Jacques-Louis, “You have understood me, my dear David.” Thanks to this artist, hiding his hand became Napoleon’s signature portrait pose, fueling propaganda that Napoleon was a much calmer and kinder leader than he actually was.

A round, framed portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte hiding his hand
Source: Getty Images
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Part of this idea came from the Greek orator, Aeschines. He once claimed that the “proper” way to speak publicly was to restrict one’s hand movements. The fewer the hand movements, the more noble the speaker would appear to be. Although Aeschines’s popularity waned, this sentiment lived on and informed Napoleon’s propaganda.

There are other potential reasons Napoleon hid his hand.

A few other articles from the mid-1900s suggest that Napoleon may have hidden his hand to keep up with trends. While rumors circulated that his hand was maimed in battle, there doesn’t seem to be any truth to those rumors. Another common possibility is simply that hands are hard to paint, so hiding his hand may have made the artist’s job easier and quicker. And as we know, Napoleon was a busy guy, so it may have also been a time-saving technique.

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A 1963 Huntsville Times article suggested that Napoleon was simply keeping in fashion with the times. “NAPOLEON, WHOSE left hand became famous for its constant position in his waistcoat, also recognized the value of a well-gloved appearance,” the article said. “He is said to have loved and owned 240 pairs of off-white and beige gloves. What did he do with his left glove?"

A black and white portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte hiding his hand
Source: Getty Images
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“Historians tell us he didn't wear one! Napoleon didn't hide his hand in his waistcoat because he was off his rocker. He was simply following the fashion of the times. It is said that all well-dressed men of the day kept the left hand hidden, and wore only one glove on the right hand.”

In addition, Cold War reporting in The Oshkosh Northwestern on France-Russian relationships revealed that Napoleon may have been coached to hide his hand. “Napoleon's classic stance, with hand inside his coat, was not his own idea,” it said. “He asked famous French actor Francois Joseph Talma how he could create a better image of himself.

“The actor, realizing that Napoleon's nervous gestures emphasized all his negative, qualities, advised him to keep his right hand inside his coat whenever in public.”

It seems like Napoleon was just projecting the original version of Instagram’s expectations versus reality.

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