Ask anyone to do an impression of the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and almost everyone will strike a pose with one leg slightly forward and right hand thrust in coat. Even two hundred years after his death, we all still know how to do it, but why is it so closely associated with him?
It is often stated that this was just an eighteenth and nineteenth century artist’s convention for portraiture, and that it was meant to convey good breeding and calm reserve while in command. However, this pose in portraits became such a cliché with many claiming that artists simply did not know how to paint hands that it fell out of fashion by the end of the eighteenth century to a large degree. One conjecture is that the Scottish artist who did Napoleon’s portraits was attempting to drum up more positive P.R. to overseas English speaking audiences, since the fad was so popular in England and the colonies.
What most people don’t know though is that Napoleon Bonaparte was unusually vain about his hands. Apparently he had very beautiful hands and was very subconscious about them. According to Betsy Balcombe, the young woman who kept him company during his exile on St. Helena, “his hand was the fattest and prettiest in the world; his knuckles dimpled like those of a baby, his fingers taper and beautifully formed, and his nails perfect.” Thus, out of habit, Napoleon would try and hide his hands.
When he wasn’t stuffing them in his pockets, one could count on him distracting you by pulling your ears. A sign of affection for his intimates, to have your ear pulled by the dainty hands of Napoleon was looked up on as a coveted gesture. It even became a badge of honor for his Imperial Guard.