In figurative paintings, there are three parts of the body which are usually unconcealed: the eyes, other parts of the face, and the hands. Look at hundreds or thousands of figures in paintings, and the great majority have one or both hands exposed. Wearing any form of handwear is exceptional, and occurs for a good reason.
This is even true of paintings which show people outside in the cold, because in many cases those figures were painted in the studio. In the days when most people wore gloves when outdoors, the first thing they’d do on entering a building was to remove their handwear, even if they kept their hat and coat on. If you see a figure in a painting wearing one or more gloves, make careful note and consider why that should be.
Hans Andersen Brendekilde’s Melting Snow from 1895 is a realistic depiction of a harsh winter in the country. An elderly couple are doing the outside jobs in typically grey and murky weather, in the backyard of their thatched smallholding. He has walked down to fetch a pail of water from a hole that he has made in the ice on the river, and wears a pair of grey woollen mittens. The figures here don’t appear to have been added to the landscape during studio sessions.
Nearly twenty years later, Brendekilde’s friend L A Ring painted this man Waiting for the Train. Level Crossing by Roskilde Highway (1914). Standing waiting to cross the railway tracks is a cyclist, clearly a working man. It is still winter, and he stands wearing a coat and gloves, looking into the distance.
Edward Adrian Wilson’s rough pencil sketch of Camping after Dark (1910) is more extreme, showing a cutaway of an Antarctic ‘pyramid’ tent, its three occupants crammed in tightly together. From their tangle of legs and boots to the mittens and balaclava hats hanging to thaw and dry above them, it’s cramped but warm and sheltered.
When a figure in a painting is shown indoors but wearing gloves, that’s a good indication that they’re expecting to go out imminently.
Rebecca Solomon’s The Appointment (1861) is an early problem picture, with a deliberately open-ended narrative. A beautiful woman stands in front of a mirror, and looks intently at a man, who is only seen in his reflection in the mirror, and is standing in a doorway behind the viewer’s right shoulder. The woman is dressed to go out, and is holding in her gloved hands a letter.
Although there’s a wide range of working gloves in today’s more protective society, you’ll seldom come across them in paintings before 1900. One notable exception is the armoured glove, which has particular significance.
Hieronymus Bosch uses an armoured glove in his retelling of Christ being crowned with thorns during the Passion. This is taken from a brief account in the Gospel of John, chapter 19. After he had been flogged, the soldiers wove a crown from thorns and put it on his head. They then dressed him in purple, a colour often confined to royalty, and mocked him by calling him the King of the Jews, and striking him on the face.
Bosch depicts this as the crown of thorns is pressed onto Christ’s head, immediately before he is dressed in a purple robe.
In The Crowning with Thorns (c 1490-1500), four men are shown around the head and body of Jesus Christ. At the top left, a crossbowman dressed in a green cloak and wearing full armour on his right hand holds, in that hand, the crown of thorns, so as to place it on Christ’s head (detail below). This soldier has a steely look of determination, his lower jaw thrust forward, mouth closed. A crossbow bolt is tucked through the matching green turban on his head.
Armoured gloves have also been popular in paintings of Joan of Arc.
The second scene of Jules Eugène Lenepveu’s murals in the Panthéon in Paris shows Joan leading the French forces against the English, who were laying siege to the French city of Orléans. There had been controversy in Joan’s trial as to whether she had used weapons against the English; Lenepveu hedges here, showing her holding a sword in her right hand, which is suitably armoured, but brandishing the Dauphin’s standard to rally the French, in the role which she described of herself.
She is wearing a suit of plate armour, which she was provided with in preparation for this operation. As this would have been designed to fit a man, this was part of the case against her for ‘cross-dressing’ in men’s clothes.
John Everett Millais put Joan of Arc (1865) into a very female and black suit of armour, including gloves, and had her holding her sword and looking up to heaven. The artist gives no clues as to when in her life this was intended to represent: her face suggests it is a moment of reflection, perhaps awaiting divine guidance, but there is a touch of sadness in that face too.
Distinctive leather gloves were also worn by falconers and, if this next painting is to be believed, by wine sommeliers.
Man With a Wine Glass (c 1630) is attributed to Velázquez, and shows this sommelier wearing an unusual cream leather glove.
Like hats, gloves have also been used by nobility and royalty in their formal dress, and for ceremonial purposes.
The third scene in Lenepveu’s series about Joan of Arc shows the coronation of King Charles VII in Reims Cathedral. The King is here just about to be crowned, as Joan stands to the right, looking up to heaven, and holding the same sword and standard as at Orléans. While her hands are bare now, the archbishop crowning Charles is wearing distinctive gloves. By an odd coincidence they happen to be of similar colour to modern disposable gloves worn by many in the pandemic!
So far, the gloves seen in these paintings have come as pairs. Occasionally, paintings show a pair of hands wearing just one glove, which inevitably has significance.
Henri Fantin-Latour’s double portrait of The Reading (1870) is odd in that the woman sat bolt upright and looking at the viewer is wearing only one glove: this exposes the ring on the fourth finger of her left hand, so crying out loudly that she is married. Why that should be significant is obscure.
A discarded glove, no longer on a hand, can also have an important reading.
William Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience, was painted during the period 1851-53 as a contrast to his The Light of the World (1851-53). As with most masterly narrative paintings, its story is assembled from a multitude of clues which are to be found in its image.
It shows a fashionable young man seated at a piano in a small if not cramped house in the leafy suburbs of London, in reality Saint John’s Wood. Half-risen from the man’s lap is a young woman who stares absently into the distance. They’re clearly a couple in an intimate relationship, but conspicuous by its absence is any wedding ring on the fourth finger of the woman’s left hand, which is at the focal point of the painting. This is, therefore, extra-marital.
Around them are signs that she is a kept mistress with time on her hands. Her companion, a cat, is under the table, where it has caught a bird with a broken wing, a symbol of her plight. At the right edge is a tapestry with which to while away the hours, and her wools below form a tangled web in which she is entwined. By the hem of her dress is her lover’s discarded glove, symbolising her ultimate fate when he discards her into prostitution. The room itself is decorated as gaudily as the piano, in poor taste.
Even the white silk gloves, worn with evening dress by the rich, acquired disturbing connotations.
Jean-Louis Forain’s increasingly sinister series of paintings of the ballet off-stage make the villains very recognisable: those well-dressed, affluent, older men in their top hats and white gloves, sometimes smoking a fat cigar. You know instantly that the bouquet is not in recognition of her dancing skills.
Gloves – preferably black and so long they reach to the elbows and above – also became erotic.
Pornocrates, or Woman with a Pig from 1878 is Félicien Rops’ best-known work. It shows a nearly-naked woman whose gloves and stockings only serve to eroticise her nakedness, being led by a pig tethered on a lead like a dog. She wears a blindfold, and an exuberant black hat, all suggesting that she is a courtesan or prostitute. In the air are three winged amorini, and below is a frieze containing allegories of sculpture, music, poetry and painting.
Above all, though, gloves became fashionable, which I’ll look at in tomorrow’s article.