Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles Okay I read this book back in grade school. The title says it all: “Dear Napoleon, I Know you're dead, but…” It's about a kid who writes letters to Napoleon Bonaparte, who is, of course, dead. The cover design is classic '90s chapter book, and shows something the main character is obsessed with. This weird thing Napoleon seemed to always do: Pose with one hand in his coat. I don't know why but that part of the book always stuck with me. And I honestly thought everyone pictured Napoleon this way. Until I asked my coworkers about it. COLEMAN: If I were to ask you to strike a pose like Napoleon Bonaparte, what would you do? DION: Um…. DION: Like… a pole? COLEMAN: Really? DION: Is this wrong? Almost everyone I asked did a sort of variation of a typical hero pose, which makes sense. But once you see the shirt thing, you can't unsee it. CHRISTINA: Oh wow, okay. MAC: Ooh. That's a lot more sultry than I knew Napoleon to be. COLEMAN: Yeah what stands out to you about that? MADDIE: I mean definitely like his hand. RANJANI: Why is his hand in his shirt? JOE: What! Yeah – Napoleon Bonaparte is one of history's most famous figures. His many successful military campaigns in the early 1800s expanded the size and influence of what's known as the “First French Empire.” Over which he ruled, as Emperor. Napoleon is remembered as both an influential military commander, and a ruthless, power-hungry tyrant. He was depicted in dozens of portraits and painted scenes throughout his life, and well beyond his death. And an overwhelming number of them look just like that book cover: Napoleon standing with his right hand concealed inside his coat. The more you look at it, the weirder it is. Why? Why? It kind of seems like no matter what Napoleon was up to – Gazing at Charlemagne's throne. Rejecting people's ideas. Crossing the Alps. Riding on a boat. Retreating from Russia. Or just hanging at home. That hand was just always jammed right in there. And I really thought everyone I asked to do a Napoleon impression would immediately do the hand thing. JOE (laughing): Who would know that? Well, actually a few people did. SAM: Isn't he like this and he's got his hand in his jacket or something? The gesture has appeared in caricatures of Napoleon. And actors portraying him over the years. Watch for it in this bowling scene from “Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.” See? [Screaming in French] People have speculated that Napoleon's hidden hand may have been deformed. Or that he was relieving chronic stomach pain caused by cancer. And, he did eventually die of stomach cancer. But the real reason Napoleon was always painted like this had nothing to do with organ pain or a deformity. And everything to do with his public image. Well it wouldn't be a Vox video if we didn't roll the clock back. Concealing a hand in one's coat was a portraiture cliché long before Napoleon was painted that way in the early 1800s. This is George Washington doing it in 1776. And Mozart over a decade before that. This painting of Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizzaro is from 1540. The pose's documented roots go all the way back to Ancient Greece. Where famed orator Aeschines claimed that restricting the movement of one hand was the proper way to speak in public. As opposed to the more animated gesturing of his rival, Demosthenes, which was apparently unbecoming. That association of restraint as a sign of respectability stuck. Except the tunics became jackets. This 1737 British etiquette guide, “The Rudiments of Genteel Behavior,” declared that keeping a hand in one's coat was key to posturing oneself with “manly boldness,” “tempered with becoming modesty.” The gesture became a stock pose in portraits painted in the mid-1700s. Like, it was everywhere. It was a popular choice for men — and, less frequently, women — who wanted to visually align themselves with nobility. And for less-talented portrait artists, since hands are hard to paint. And, unsurprisingly, as the pose became more and more common in paintings, it's reputation cheapened. That is until one of the most powerful people in the world... ...made it his trademark. Napoleon was famous for many things, namely his innovative and successful strategies in warfare. He was obsessed with gaining power at all costs, and won battle after battle in what are now called the Napoleonic Wars, briefly establishing French domination in Europe. All while fostering a grandiose image, like organizing an elaborate coronation ceremony for himself in 1804, immortalized in this state-sanctioned painting of the event. But outside of France, he was a popular figure for caricature. And was repeatedly portrayed as a small man with a hot head. Like in this 1803 British political cartoon, “Maniac ravings, or Little Boney in a strong fit.” Which is why this famous portrait of Napoleon in his study is significant. It was done in 1812 by his official painter, Jacques-Louis David. Who also made some of the period's most recognized paintings. It's a departure from many previous depictions of the conqueror. Including some by David himself. And represents an effective example of propaganda. There are key details here that tell a story of a modest, hardworking leader. The candles are burned all the way down. And the clock shows that it's almost 4:15 in the morning. Napoleon stands from his desk, having worked all night completing his signature legislation: The Napoleonic Code. This map on the floor and Napoleon's sword at the ready are reminders of his successes on the battlefield. But it's the restrained pose, with the centuries of context surrounding it, that stands out. Crowds of people apparently came to see the painting in 1812, and David himself wrote that the portrait's popularity was due to A stark contrast to other contemporary images of the ruler. Napoleon didn't actually pose for this portrait, but he is quoted to have said upon seeing it: This gesture of modesty and steady leadership became a common way to depict Napoleon. And stuck with him well beyond his death in 1821. But the pose's legacy didn't end with Napoleon. The well-established portrait cliché was also a trend in early portrait photography. With notable sitters like Karl Marx and even the celebrated inventor of photography himself, Louis Daguerre, adopting the gesture. It was also a common appearance in portraits of soldiers fighting in the American Civil War. Concealing a hand gave the subject a distinguished look, and helped keep them in sharp focus during the long exposure times of early photography, which often rendered blurred hands. COLEMAN: Is this familiar at all to you? LAURA: I mean, sort of. That's actually not what I imagined him looking like. JOE: That's what Napoleon looked like? SAM: If you showed me that I wouldn't guess it was Napoleon, probably because he doesn't have the hat on. It's probably pretty telling that almost everyone I asked to do an impression of Napoleon adopted poses based around Napoleon's supposedly short stature and his vanity. MAC: This is my pose. COLEMAN: Okay. MAC: Napoleon. Tiny man, proud chest. And didn't recognize David's depiction of Napoleon. Or this arguably more important one — at least in my mind. This is a photo of Charlie Chaplin dressed as Napoleon, and it features not one, but two portraiture cliches. The hand-in-waistcoat gesture, and this wicker chair. It's called the peacock chair, and, like the hand gesture, it shows up in tons of photos. There's a whole history of how it became so popular. And lucky for you, Estelle already made a video about it.