Q. Why is Napoleon Bonaparte commonly pictured with his right hand hidden inside his coat?
— B.T., of Highland
A. As Maxwell Smart might have asked, would you believe he had a deformed right hand he was ashamed of showing in public?
How about an itchy skin disease that would have left his fidgeting extremity too difficult to paint otherwise?
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Or he was simply winding his watch out of boredom?
If you do enough research, you’ll find all of these reasons have been posited for that famous pose — and they just scratch the surface. Some have proposed that the French emperor had a stomach ulcer (or breast cancer), that he was holding a perfumed sachet which he loved to take out and sniff occasionally, and that the painter simply didn’t like to do hands.
As you’ve probably guessed by now, the real reason is far more pedestrian. Back in Napoleon’s time, the hand-in-the-coat portrait was simply the way important men were painted — even to the point where the pose almost became a cliche, according to Arline Meyer.
“In real life, the ‘hand-held-in’ gesture was a common stance for men of breeding,” she wrote in her lengthy 1995 article, “Re-Dressing Classical Statuary: The Eighteenth-Century ‘Hand-in-Waistcoat’ Portrait,” published in Art Bulletin.
Meyer wrote that you can find the hidden-hand pose dating back to ancient Greek and Roman statues and that painters in the 1700s rejuvenated it. Originally, she wrote, it was recommended by ancient writers as a useful posture for speakers. In fact, Aeschines of Macedon, who wrote an important book on oratory circa 350 B.C., suggested that speaking with your arm outside your toga was ill-mannered.
Twenty centuries later, several books on public speaking published in the 1700s repeated this classic advice. Soon, English portrait artists were having their subjects place their hands inside their coats long before Jacques-Louis David’s famous 1812 painting of “Napoleon in his Study at the Tuileries” (for which, experts say, Napoleon did not even pose.)
So while most people tend to associate the image with Napoleon, you don’t have to search hard to find countless other examples, including one of Napoleon’s own father, Carlo. If you go to vigilantcitizen.com and search for “hidden hand,” you can find paintings of Mozart, George Washington, Karl Marx — even Joseph Stalin — all with a hand tucked inside a coat.
Of course, Vigilant Citizen offers a somewhat more sinister reason for the pose: that it is a sign that the men all had achieved the Royal Arch Degree of Freemasonry and that they secretly were telling fellow initiates that they practiced the occult philosophy. They say it’s based on Exodus 4:6-8 in which Moses is instructed to put his hand in his cloak (or bosom) as a sign from God. But I’ll let you ponder the veracity of that story for yourself.
Q. Why do the English commonly write day-month-year while we do month-day-year?
— J.T., of Waterloo
A. Actually, there are three common methods of writing the date, and we are among a tiny minority (perhaps under 10 percent) who do it our way.
Most of the world — an estimated 3.4 billion people by some counts — use the English system, which some call the “little-endian” way. They say it arose from the custom of writing the date as, say, “the 10th of January in the year of our Lord 2015.” They also say it is a more logical sequence of going from the smallest time element (day) to the bigger (month) to the biggest (year).
On the other hand, another sizable chunk of the world, including China, uses the “big-endian” method of year-month-day. Used by roughly 1.7 billion people, this also has two advantages. It has a logical sequence of biggest time element (year) to smallest (day). And that makes it an easy method for computerized sorting by date, which has become known internationally as the ISO 8601 dating standard.
So we are one of the few countries who use the month-day-year sequence. Although it lacks a sequential logic, it may have become popular out of a need for speed — i.e., saying “January 10th” instead of “the 10th of January.” Thus, the shorthand became month-day-year.
So, interestingly, “9/11” in the United States marks the day of the deadly terrorist attacks while other parts of the world think of it as the day they opened the Berlin Wall (Nov. 9, 1989).
St. Louis film trivia part I: Which movie, appropriately enough, was the final film to be shown at the old St. Louis Theatre in 1966 before it was converted into the present-day Powell Hall, home of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra?
Answer to Thursday’s trivia: The St. Louis Blues recently recorded hat tricks in two consecutive games, but that’s nothing compared to what Joe Malone did during 1917-18, the National Hockey League’s first season. First, the Montreal Canadien center scored hat tricks in three consecutive games on Dec. 16, 22 and 26. Then, two months later, he did it again on Feb. 16, 18 and 20. By the time the season was over, he had slapped in 44 goals and added four assists in just 20 games to lead the league in both goals and points. In the nearly 100 years since, only one other player has scored hat tricks in three consecutive games — New York Islander Hall-of-Famer Mike Bossy on Nov. 6, 8 and 11, 1980.
Wayne Gretzky never accomplished the feat, although he does hold records for most career hat tricks (50) and most hat tricks in a season, 10, in both 1981-82 and 1983-84 for Edmonton. As a team, the Oilers would chalk up 21 hat tricks during that 1983-84 season; so far, the Blues have six this year.