Hand gesture is a language of its own


Looking at the many human figures in ‘European Masterpieces from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York’, it’s hard not to notice their hands: some elongated and others plump; palms pressed together in prayer or laid open in desperation; nimble, pick-pocketing hands; a wrinkled finger pointing in accusation; a clenched fist; dirty fingernails.

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We are primed to notice the position of another person’s hands much as we read subtle facial expressions or fluctuating tones of voice. Gesture is a kind of language — one that is organised through a semantics and syntax more sophisticated than we might initially realise. We need only recall the famously mistranslated signs between cultures or the hand signals once used on Wall Street trading floors to see the complexity of non-verbal languages.  

Hand gestures can also adopt new meanings over time. In Fra Angelico’s The Crucifixion, the Roman soldier Longinus brings his fingers together in the mano a borsa (purse hand). We might now associate this gesture with an expression of frustration or disbelief (perhaps thrown out by an impatient Tony Soprano). However, in Fra Angelico’s day, the sign communicated something quite different, that is, the soldier’s awe before the cross and his assertion that this was the one true Christ. By including this small detail, Fra Angelico synthesises the story of the Longinus’s spontaneous conversion into a single expression.

Fra Angelico (Guido di Pietro), Italy c.1395–1455 / The Crucifixion c.1420–23 / Tempera on wood, gold ground / 63.8 x 48.3cm / Maitland F Griggs Collection, Bequest of Maitland F Griggs, 1943 / 43.98.5 / Collection: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Many other artists in the exhibition use gesture to evoke speech in the silent medium of painting. Giovani di Paolo imagines saved souls warmly greeting each other in the garden of paradise, before being ushered on into heaven. As they embrace, touching each other warmly on the forearms or nestling their hands together, we can almost hear their welcomes: ‘Well how are you? It’s been too long’. Similarly, in Nicholas Poussin’s depiction of a miraculous healing, nearly every character is doing something with his hands. Unable to walk, the lame man reaches up to Saints Peter and John on the temple steps. The long-haired Saint Peter raises a pointed finger to cure the man of his ailment, while members of the crowd point and shrug with open hands in disbelief.

Giovanni di Paolo (Giovanni di Paolo di Grazia), Italy 1398–1482 / Paradise 1445 / Tempera and gold on canvas, transferred from wood / Overall: 47 x 40.6cm; painted surface: 44.5 x 38.4cm / Rogers Fund, 1906 / 06.1046 / Collection: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Nicolas Poussin, France 1594–1665 / Saints Peter and John Healing the Lame Man 1655 / Oil on canvas / 125.7 x 165.1cm / Marquand Fund, 1924 / 24.45.2 / Collection: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Almost exactly 100 years later, Jean-Baptiste Greuze tells a cautionary tale without the need for words. A servant girl wrings her hands in shame as her basket of eggs lies broken on the ground (many have read this to symbolise her lost virginity). Above, an elderly woman grabs the wrist of a portly man and furiously points to the young girl. In the righthand corner, a cowering Cupid tries to put the eggshells back together (on the wooden barrel we can just make out his bow and arrow, identifying the child as the god of romantic desire). We are lead around the scene by these eight expressive hands, as each guides us to clues within the cryptic image.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, France 1725–1805 / Broken Eggs 1756 / Oil on canvas / 73 x 94cm / Bequest of William K Vanderbilt, 1920 / 20.155.8 / Collection: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The art historian and critic Michael Fried claimed that a successful artwork mimicked human-to-human interaction, or gesture. For him, even abstract art was informed by ‘not gestures exactly, but the efficacy of gesture; like certain music and poetry, [artworks] are possessed by the knowledge of the human body and how, in innumerable ways and moods, it makes meaning.’1

In this way, gestures make a painting feel more real. The artists in ‘European Masterpieces’ paint hands with care as a way to bring the figures closer to us: drawing an equivalence between their bodies and our bodies. The characters are not just pointing, fidgeting, or flailing within the scene but, on some level, gesturing towards us. Although hundreds of years old, these figures seem to reach out to us with urgency, their messages just as direct as when they were first painted.

Sophie Rose is Assistant Curator, International Art, QAGOMA

1 Michael Fried, ‘Art and Objecthood’, Artforum, vol. 5, no. 10 (June 1967), p.20, https://www.artforum.com/print/196706/art-and-objecthood-36708. Fried’s italics.

Hands that tell a story

Simon Vouet, France 1590–1649 / Woman Playing a Guitar c.1618 / Oil on canvas / 106.5 x 75.8cm / Purchase, 2017 Benefit Fund; Lila Acheson Wallace Gift; Mary Trumbull Adams and Victor Wilbour Memorial Funds; Friends of European Paintings and Henry and Lucy Moses Fund Inc. Gifts; Gift of Julia A Berwind, by exchange; Charles and Jessie Price, Otto Naumann, Mr and Mrs Richard L Chilton Jr, and Sally and Howard Lepow Gifts; Charles B Curtis Fund; and Theodocia and Joseph Arkus Gift, 2017 / 2017.242 / Collection: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Peter Paul Rubens, Flanders 1577–1640 / The Holy Family with Saints Francis and Anne and the Infant Saint John the Baptist early or mid 1630s / Oil on canvas / 176.5 x 209.6cm / Gift of James Henry Smith, 1902 / 02.24 / Collection: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Georges de La Tour, France 1593 – 1652 / The Fortune-Teller c.1630s / Oil on canvas / 101.9 x 123.5cm / Rogers Fund, 1960 / 60.3 / Collection: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Guido Cagnacci, Italy 1601–63 / The Death of Cleopatra c.1645–55 / Oil on canvas / 95 x 75cm / Purchase, Diane Burke Gift, Gift of J Pierpont Morgan, by exchange, Friends of European Paintings Gifts, Gwynne Andrews Fund, Lila Acheson Wallace, Charles and Jessie Price, and Álvaro Saieh Bendeck Gifts, Gift and Bequest of George Blumenthal and Fletcher Fund, by exchange, and Michel David-Weill Gift, 2016 / 2016.63 / Collection: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Jean Siméon Chardin, France 1699–1779 / Soap Bubbles c.1733–34 / Oil on canvas / 61 x 63.2cm / Wentworth Fund, 1949 / 49.24 / Collection: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, France 1755–1842 / Comtesse de la Châtre (Marie Charlotte Louise Perrette Aglaé Bontemps, 1762–1848) 1789 / Oil on canvas / 114.3 x 87.6cm / Gift of Jessie Woolworth Donahue, 1954 / 54.182 / Collection: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Jean-Léon Gérôme, France 1824–1904 / Pygmalion and Galatea c.1890 / Oil on canvas / 88.9 x 68.6cm / Gift of Louis C Raegner, 1927 / 27.200 / Collection: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

This Australian-exclusive exhibition was at the Gallery of Modern Art from 12 June until 17 October 2021 and organised by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in collaboration with the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art and Art Exhibitions Australia.

Featured image details: (Left to right) Jean-Baptiste Greuze Broken Eggs 1756  / Georges de La Tour The Fortune-Teller c.1630s  / Giovanni di Paolo (Giovanni di Paolo di Grazia) Paradise 1445


  1. I have a slight issue with the reference to St. Peter in the painting ‘Saints Peter and John Healing the Lame Man’ 1655. Whilst the title of the painting is always given as ‘Saints Peter and John Healing the Lame Man’ saint Peter is actually on the right and St. John on the left. It is actually a long-haired St John who is raising a pointed finger to cure the man of his ailment – not St. Peter. You might want to make a correction to this very interesting article?