Getting the Point: Reading hands in paintings

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), Pollice Verso (detail) (1872), oil on canvas, 96.5 x 149.2 cm, Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix, AZ. Wikimedia Commons.

In yesterday’s article, I showed examples of paintings in which reading the gaze of figures is important. Today I look at something which may appear even more obvious, but can be missed altogether: hands and their gestures, most notably pointing.

Conventional wisdom about telling stories in images holds that body language is of great importance. In the late twentieth century, sociobiologists like Desmond Morris wrote popular accounts of human non-verbal communication and behaviour. Although it may seem strange that people have to learn how to interpret what we apparently do naturally, it relies on close observation and understanding which seems to be diminishing with increasing reliance on technology.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796–1875), Diana and Actaeon (1836), oil on canvas, 156.5 × 112.7 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

In painting his account of the myth of Diana and Actaeon in 1836, Camille Corot decided to revive one of the great narrative techniques of the Renaissance: what I term multiplex narrative, which shows a composite of several moments in a single image. Recognising that this might cause problems for contemporary viewers, he went out of his way to provide strong visual cues to help navigate its story.

The viewer’s eye is first drawn to the naked women cavorting in a small pool. Here is Diana and her entourage, and above and to the right is the approaching figure of Actaeon with his dog, who is just about to stumble across the goddess by accident. The tragic conclusion of the myth, in which Actaeon is transformed into a stag and ripped apart by his own hounds, is shown in the distance at the left edge of the canvas. To see him there you only have to follow Diana’s pointing.

Jean-Joseph Weerts (1847-1927), The Assassination of Marat (1880), media and dimensions not known, Musée “la piscine”, Roubaix, France. Wikimedia Commons.

In Jean-Joseph Weerts’ painting of The Assassination of Marat from 1880, arms and hands are so strongly accusative that they look almost operatic in their theatricality. Among the crowd pointing and waving are Simonne Evrard (Marat’s fiancée), a distributor of Marat’s newspaper, two neighbours (a military surgeon and a dentist), and Republican troops. Charlotte Corday is still clutching the knife which she plunged into the body of Marat in his bath, and she shrinks back against the wall, transfixed.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905), Orestes Pursued by the Furies (The Remorse of Orestes) (1862), oil on canvas, 227 × 278 cm, Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, VA. Wikimedia Commons.

With only a still image in which to convey the sensory intensity of the Furies, painters have used strong body language as a substitute for motion and sound. In William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s Orestes Pursued by the Furies (also known as The Remorse of Orestes) from 1862, three Gorgonic Furies are wailing and screaming at Orestes, and carry the murdered corpse of Clytemnestra, Orestes’ dagger still buried deep into her. The artist here shows the Furies pointing at the dagger buried in his mother’s chest, while directing their gaze violently at his head.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Virgin of the Rocks (first version) (c 1483-85), oil on wood transferred to canvas, 199 x 122 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Many religious paintings use a combination of pointing, hand position and gaze to tell their stories. Leonardo da Vinci’s first version of the Virgin of the Rocks, now in the Louvre, is an excellent and complex example. The central figure is the Virgin Mary, whose right hand clasps the back of the infant Saint John the Baptist. With her is an angel, whose left hand supports the lower back of the younger baby Jesus.

Hand positions, including most prominently the right hand of the angel, direct towards the clasped hands of John. As is traditional, the Madonna’s eyes are cast down, but the angel is looking towards the lower right corner of the painting. Christ is distinguished by his right hand held in blessing, and his evident youth compared with the larger John who is praying for him.

Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), The Judgment of Solomon (1649), oil on canvas, 101 x 150 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Another Biblical narrative which has often relied on hands for its telling is The Judgment of Solomon, as painted here by Nicolas Poussin in 1649. Solomon’s hands indicate his role as the arbiter, pointing out the fair balance between the two sides.

The true mother, on the left, holds her left hand up to tell the soldier to stop following the King’s instructions and spare the infant who is the subject of the dispute. Her right hand is extended towards the false mother, indicating that she has asked for the baby to go to her rather than die. The false mother points accusingly at the child, her expression full of hatred. Hands are also raised in the group at the right, perhaps indicating their reactions to Solomon’s judgement.

Sometimes, even in relatively small groups of figures, hands are shown prominently but are far harder to read.

Henri Fantin-Latour (1836–1904), The Dubourg Family (1878), oil on canvas, 146.5 x 170.5 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

In Henri Fantin-Latour’s group portrait of his in-laws, The Dubourg Family from 1878, his wife Victoria is standing at the left, her hands pointing down to her father (I presume) who is gazing distantly as if he was somewhere else. Close to the centre of the canvas are no less than six hands, which stand out against the dark and drab clothing, but what is to be made of them?

Félix Vallotton (1865–1925), Five Painters (1902-03), oil on canvas, 145 x 187 cm, Kunstmuseum Winterthur, Winterthur, Switzerland. Wikimedia Commons.

A total of seven hands stand out in Félix Vallotton’s group portrait of Nabis, Five Painters, from 1902-03. Most form a diagonal cutting down from the standing figure at the left (the artist’s self-portrait), to that resting on Charles Cottet’s left thigh. They remain a mystery.

Hands, their fingers in particular, do much more than point, and have a rich range of gestures which have featured in paintings.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), Pollice Verso (1872), oil on canvas, 96.5 x 149.2 cm, Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix, AZ. Wikimedia Commons.

Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Pollice Verso, painted over the period from before 1869 to 1872, looks at the power of expression – here, a small gesture of the hand – in his favourite context, the Roman gladiatorial arena, which he had fallen in love with when he was first in Rome almost thirty years earlier.

The victorious gladiator stands with his right foot on the throat of the loser. He looks up at the crowd, to see whether he should kill that loser, indicated by thumbs pointing downward, or should spare his life, shown by thumbs pointing up. The title confirms what we can see: thumbs are down, and the gladiator on the ground is about to be brutally killed as the result of a small gesture of the hands.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), Pollice Verso (detail) (1872), oil on canvas, 96.5 x 149.2 cm, Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix, AZ. Wikimedia Commons.

The Furies return for my last example, one of the large murals painted by John Singer Sargent in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), Orestes Pursued by the Furies (1922-25), oil on canvas, 348 × 317.5 cm, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Boston, MA. Wikimedia Commons.

Among his magnificent wall paintings, Sargent started Orestes Pursued by the Furies in 1922, and completed it in 1925, just prior to his death. Over its 100 square feet of canvas, it shows a young and naked Orestes cowering under the attacks of the Furies, as he tries to run from them. The swarm of no less than a dozen fearsome Furies have daemonic mask-like faces all staring wildly at Orestes, blond hair swept back, and hold out burning brands and fistfuls of snakes.

Sargent has gilded the flames on the brands, which makes them shine proud, just like fire. The isolated woman who stands in Orestes’ way is no Fury, though: she wears a gilded crown, and with the clean incision of a stab wound above her left breast can only be his mother, Clytemnestra.

Sargent’s profusion of eight arms, with their hands clutching snakes, reaches fever pitch.

John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), Orestes Pursued by the Furies (detail) (1922-25), oil on canvas, 348 × 317.5 cm, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Boston, MA. Wikimedia Commons.