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I've just been to the Royal Castle in Warsaw, Poland and I noticed that many of the portraits show the subject pointing at something, often out of the frame, for example this one.

Why is this?

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    I take it that this is a portrait of August II. Here's a short bio for what it's worth: encyclopedia.com/history/… – Brian Z Apr 13 '17 at 18:18
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    "Augustus was rumored to have sired 354 illegitimate children with a series of mistresses" What do you think he's pointing at? – AllInOne Apr 13 '17 at 18:36
  • Well, they have to do something with their hands. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hand-in-waistcoat In this case he has a telescope in his other hand so the implication is that he has seen something that you can't and he's indicating the object he has spied. – AllInOne Apr 13 '17 at 18:45
  • @AllInOne ha! I'm now imagining that the words he was thinking were "Those. All 354 of those." 😂 It did seem to be a repeating pattern though, I saw a number of others pointing, some at an object (I think one was a staff of some kind)... – Matt Lyons Apr 13 '17 at 20:39
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The fact that the artist is unknown presents a problem in that different interpretations of hand gestures have been applied to different artists (see combination of pictorial and real space for example), especially when the subject is pointing to something out of the frame. However, there are some general 'pointers' which can be applied in many cases.


The most likely explanation for Augustus II’s gesture in the portrait below is probably this one:

A hand with the index finger pointing but level means the person is on the path and is proceeding along it - in process as it were. There is the added implication that they know where they are going - know their Destiny.

enter image description here

Augustus II the Strong (d. 1733), Elector of Saxony, King of Poland, Grand Duke of Lithuania. Image source

There is a look of confidence about the portrait as a whole, that the subject knows where he is going, an image which pretty much any ruler would want to project. The gesture with the left hand emphasizes this.

Another common gesture is pointing down, representing

...their Higher spirit reaching down for the soul. The implication being that the person is not yet on the path and is being 'searched for', as they are in a state of innocence [or ignorance if you prefer].

enter image description here

Sir Thomas Chaloner (d. 1565). Image source

Pointing up is also seen in some paintings, perhaps most famously in Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper and also Saint John the Baptist, the common interpretation being (unsurprisingly) heaven. For example,

...characters represented in paintings St. Anna and John (1498-1499?, National Gallery, London, England), Last Supper (1495-1498, Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan, Italy), St. John the Baptist (Leonardo da Vinci, 1513, Louvre) point to the heaven. In this way, they indicate supernatural ("heavenly") dimensions of being (God, paradise, grace etc.) and "high" values.

(see also this article: St. John the Baptist - by Leonardo Da Vinci)


Generally, pointing at people or objects within the frame is used to draw attention to who or what is being pointed at.


Other source:

Shearer West, Portraiture (Oxford History of Art)

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