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Why Do Men Tuck One Hand On Their Clothes In Paintings And Photographs?

Por: Abril Palomino15 de octubre de 2021

Of course conspiracy theorists already had a saying on this!

Any skilled observer of the history of art will be able to notice that curious and peculiar pose with which many illustrious men have been portrayed. We're talking about that posture in which they hide their hand under their coat or vest. No matter their origin or context, from the paintings of nobles to some photographs of people of lesser aristocratic rank, they usually share this sign, which, by the way, has a much deeper meaning than it seems.

The curious and art historians have observed these men, standing or sitting, wearing fine coats or modest vests, as if they shared a secret code. Conspiracy theorists claim it is a Masonic code, while professional evidence suggests other theories.

Why do men hide their hands in paintings and photographs?

According to Arline Meyer's essay, Re-dressing Classical Statuary: The Eighteenth-Century "Hand-in-Waistcoat" Portrait, this tradition goes back long before the 18th century. Some social circles in ancient Greece considered it disrespectful to speak with one's hands out of one's clothes. Thus, statues from the 6th century BC showed famous orators such as Solon with their hands tucked into their cloaks.

Centuries later, when this tradition seemed forgotten, artists began to look to antiquity for inspiration and returned to depicting subjects in a similar pose, believing it conveyed a noble, calm demeanor and good manners.

The pose became constant in 18th-century portraits, for example, those of Napoleon Bonaparte. Some think that this pose was a result of the artist's poor hand portraiture skills, while others think it may have also been associated with severe stomach pains caused by cancer. However, it is more likely that he was following a tradition.

In 1738, Francois Nivelon wrote in his book The Rudiments of Genteel Behavior that the hand-in-vest pose signified manly boldness tempered with modesty. When photography began to become popular in the early 19th century, this trend continued to portray personalities such as U.S. President Franklin Pierce, Joseph Stalin, Simon Bolivar, and Karl Marx. As time went by, this trend began to diminish.

Masonic Theory

Believers of conspiracy theories suggest that most of the people who use this pose are members of the Freemasons. Considering the great importance of this gesture in Masonic rituals and the fact that all the elite were part of Freemasonry or at least knew about it, it is simply impossible that the recurrence of this sign could be the result of a coincidence. 

The "hidden hand" can be found in some secret rituals, and world leaders who use this sign are subtly telling other initiates of the order. This hand gesture is said to be inspired by the Exodus: the heart represents what one is and the hand what one does. It can therefore be interpreted as: What we are is what we do. 

The symbolic meaning of this gesture may explain why it is so widely used by famous Masons. The hidden hand lets other initiates know that the individual depicted is part of this secret Brotherhood and that his actions were inspired by Masonic philosophy and beliefs. In addition, the hand that performs actions remains hidden behind the cloth, which may symbolically refer to the covert nature of Freemasonry.

Translated by María Isabel Carrasco Cara Chards
Photos from Wikimedia Commons

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