Skip to main content

The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

The hands have it

by Angus Trumble, 8 June 2016

Angus Trumble treats the gallery’s collection with a dab hand.

Dame Mabel Brookes
Dame Mabel Brookes, c. 1955 Sir William Dargie CBE. © Roger Dargie and Faye Dargie

When they appear in portraits, and they appear very often, hands may perform any number of useful functions. They can be set to work doing something useful. They can be exploited as a refinement or elaboration of elements of the character of the sitter. They can enhance the composition through gesture—demonstrative, particular or vague as the case may be. They can place real emphasis upon qualities of grace, strength, endurance, frailty, delicacy or plain old age. They can be made to hold onto something, or to let it go. They can be clasped, or in repose. And the hands can be brought into suggestive dialogue with the face itself. As Montaigne put it (in 1580),

What doe we with our hands? Doe we not sue and entreat, promise and performe, call men unto us and discharge them, bid them farewell and be gone, threaten, pray, beseech, deny, refuse, demand, admire, number, confesse, repent, feare, bee ashamed, doubt, instruct, command, incite, encourage, sweare, witnesse, accuse, condemne, absolve, injure, despise, defie, despight, flatter, applaud, blesse, humble, mocke, reconcile, recommend, exalt, shew gladnesse, rejoyce, complaine, waile, sorrow, discomfort, dispaire, cry out, forbid, declare silence and astonishment: and what not? with so great variation, and amplifying as if they would contend with the tongue.

1 Sir Macfarlane Burnet, 1960-1961 Sir William Dargie CBE. © Roger Dargie and Faye Dargie. 2 Dora Byrne, 1951 Richard von Marientreu, Currently on display. 3 Frank Fenner AC CMG MBE, 2007 Jude Rae. © Commonwealth of Australia.

In general terms, it would seem that, if indeed we do all of these things with gesture, artists have always taken full advantage of their capacity to seize upon our hands, and capture parts of us in that way. En grande tenue, for example, Dame Mabel Brookes is shown to be partial to spry red nail varnish. In his laboratory, Macfarlane Burnet handles an egg just firmly enough to provide stability. There is a hint of reserve in the conjoined disposition of the hands, in each case, of Dora Byrne and Frank Fenner. Ann Moyal toys with her sautoir. George Judah Cohen literally applies the hand of experience to his business affairs. One hand may be shown somehow dealing with a glove that partly conceals the other – which often raises the question whether the sitter was captured in the act of putting them on or taking them off – such is the case with Herbert Badham and Charles Lloyd Jones, who also holds his pipe, that now forgotten emblem of depth of thought. Repose itself, meanwhile, covers wide territory: Kate Hattam’s attenuated wrists embody personal style, while Lowitja O’Donoghue’s hands carry the eminence of age and experience.

1 Ann Moyal, 1957 Pamela Thalben-Ball. 2 George Judah Cohen, 1925 George Lambert. 3 Self portrait with glove, 1939 Herbert Badham. © Estate of Herbert Badham.

On the other hand – sorry – the passage of time, the action of history, often steers us towards the perception of larger cultural, even national tendencies – at odds with purely individual traits. Surely one can trace, for example, a taste in Chinese and Japanese Buddhist sculpture for sinuously curving fingers, a gentle resistance to the whole notion of joint articulation possibly arising from conventions of dance, of delicate motions, as much as one can point to a whole-of-life interest on the part of German and Austrian painters from Dürer and Grünewald all the way down to Klimt, Schiele, and Beckmann in the expressive potential of long, bony fingers, or sunken phalanges, or swollen joints, and creeping, protruding veins. French art, meanwhile, from the School of Fontainebleau, through Rigaud, Boucher and Fragonard, Vigée-Lebrun, Greuze and Boilly, to Bouguereau, even Toulouse-Lautrec and Degas, exhibits what seems to me an undeniable taste for elegantly tapering fingers, tiny, not to say minuscule fingertips, and winningly dimpled knuckles. When in Marivaux’ play Jeu de l’amour et du hazard (1730), about to take Lisette’s hand in marriage, the character of Arlequin describes it affectionately as “rondelette et potelée” (strictly speaking the equivalent of ‘pottled,’ meaning plump, but surely also implying the presence of dimples) he could be describing exactly the hand of a Boucher shepherdess. Softness, delicacy, and an impressively independent, free-ranging cocked little finger seem to characterise the hand in French art.

1 Sir Charles Lloyd Jones, 1951 Sir William Dobell OBE. © William Dobell/Copyright Agency, 2023, Currently on display. 2 A Portrait (Kate Hattam), 1956 Clifton Pugh AO. © Shane Pugh, Currently on display. 3 Lowitja O'Donoghue, 2006 Robert Hannaford AM. © Commonwealth of Australia, Currently on display.

It may seem bizarre, therefore, to speculate whether, 300 years hence, any such thing as an ‘Australian’ hand will then be discerned in the portraits of our own time and place, when it is, of course, quite invisible to us. The diverse character of our society may well militate against such a tendency, but equally nobody could sustain the argument that all French hands of the eighteenth century, for example, actually conformed to the Boucher type – any more than that all Viennese fingers of the Belle Epoque were bony – yet that is how the visual culture of those times and places now powerfully urge us to remember them. 

© National Portrait Gallery 2024
King Edward Terrace, Parkes
Canberra, ACT 2600, Australia

Phone +61 2 6102 7000
ABN: 54 74 277 1196

The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders past and present. We respectfully advise that this site includes works by, images of, names of, voices of and references to deceased people.

This website comprises and contains copyrighted materials and works. Copyright in all materials and/or works comprising or contained within this website remains with the National Portrait Gallery and other copyright owners as specified.

The National Portrait Gallery respects the artistic and intellectual property rights of others. The use of images of works of art reproduced on this website and all other content may be restricted under the Australian Copyright Act 1968 (Cth). Requests for a reproduction of a work of art or other content can be made through a Reproduction request. For further information please contact NPG Copyright.

The National Portrait Gallery is an Australian Government Agency