10 Lessons on Body Language from Belle Époque artist Jacques-Émile Blanche

Portrait of Jacques-Emile Blanche by John Singer Sargent, 1886
Portrait of Jacques-Emile Blanche by John Singer Sargent, 1886

Most  portrait paintings we see in museums are of people posed fairly consistently in a serious, closed lip stare, usually squarely at the artist.

There’s little room for the artist to convey personality, so most portraits tend to be austere representations of a person for family records or to memorialize wealthy and powerful patrons.

On that basis, Jacques-Émile Blanche (1861 – 1942) is an artist who really stands out from others by capturing body language in his portraits to convey something of the individual’s personality and character traits.

In the portrait of Blanche painted by John Singer Sargent, he is shown with folded arms—a very defensive posture that we’ll discuss in more depth.

According to 19th-century artist Edward Burne-Jones (1833 – 1898),

The only expression allowable in great portraiture is the expression of character and moral quality, not anything temporary, fleeting, or accidental.

But Aristotle once said,

The aim of Art is to present not the outward appearance of things, but their inner significance; for this, not the external manner and detail, constitutes true reality.

In those terms, Blanche is lending an artistic touch to portraiture that goes beyond what was considered acceptable by his contemporaries.

He was largely self-taught, so this may explain why his style is so different and more natural.

And that natural style gives us some valuable lessons in body language.

Here are 10 Lessons in body language from Jacques-Émile Blanche.

1. Hand Supporting Chin or Side of Face

Hands are very expressive and send more signals than any part of the body except for the face.

This signal means that people are assessing or evaluating their next actions, options, or reactions to something or someone.

A more prolonged, unfocused or averted gesture will indicate tiredness or boredom—the most likely way the subject, Lady Capel, is feeling in this portrait.

But when your hand is on your cheek and your brows are furrowed, it’s a sign of deep concentration.

Portrait of Berthe Capel, wife of Lord Michelham by Jacques-Émile Blanche, 1897
Portrait of Lady Berthe Capel, wife of Lord Michelham by Jacques-Émile Blanche, 1897

2. Chin resting on thumb with index finger pointing up against face

This is a more reliable and specific example of the evaluation signal.

Supported by an elbow resting on a table, or arm of a chair, the middle finger is usually level with the area between chin and lower lip.

Eye-contact is direct and focused unlike the averted gaze of Lady Capel in the example above.

Georges Porto-Riche by Jacques-Emile Blanche, 1889
Georges Porto-Riche by Jacques-Emile Blanche, 1889

3. Hands-on-Hips

Also known as the “readiness” gesture, hands-on-hips tells others that we’re ready for action!

We see hands-on-hips used by defiant children, by athletes waiting for a race to start, or by boxers before a fight.

Animals display aggression by fluffing up their feathers or fur to make themselves appear bigger than they are. Thanks to evolution, we humans can’t do that anymore, so we have developed the hands-on-hips gesture to simulate a bigger profile.

Even one hand on the hip sends the same message of readiness.

Portrait of Jean Cocteau by Jacques-Émile Blanche
Portrait of Jean Cocteau by Jacques-Émile Blanche
Paul-Baignères by Jacques-Emile Blanche, 1891
Paul-Baignères by Jacques-Emile Blanche, 1891

4. Ear Tugging

Seeking comfort from minor physical irritations, we tend to scratch our nose, stroke our chin or rub our eyes. But ear-pulling or tugging often indicates something more—signaling indecision and related pondering.

It can mean a desire to “hear no evil”—we don’t like the sound of what we’re hearing and so we subconsciously reach for our ear lobes and tug them to relieve the emotional discomfort.

Woman reading by Jacques-Émile Blanche
Woman reading by Jacques-Émile Blanche
Portrait de Marcel Proust by Jacques-Émile Blanche, 1897
Portrait de Marcel Proust by Jacques-Émile Blanche, 1897

5. Steepling

Reflecting complex, elevated thinking and resembling the rafters of a church roof, steepling is a gesture most often used by intellectuals.

People who use steepling are subconsciously expressing confidence in their knowledge of a subject.

It’s a bit like non-verbally communicating “I know more about this than you do”.

Portrait of Harry Melvill by Jacques-Émile Blanche, 1904
Portrait of Harry Melvill by Jacques-Émile Blanche, 1904

6. Crossed Arms

A classic defensive posture, our arms subconsciously act as shields, protecting us from the outside world.

We tend to use arm folding when we don’t like what we’re seeing or hearing, but we also use it to signal we need space, or that we’re cold. In the latter case, we usually tuck our hands under our armpits.

As young children, we would hide behind a parent or objects like furniture to temporarily escape situations we didn’t like. But as adults, we’ve developed this body language gesture to help protect ourselves from perceived threats.

Combined with clenched teeth and pursed lips, folded arms signify that a confrontation is probable.

Maurice Barrès by Jacques-Émile Blanche, 1903
Maurice Barrès by Jacques-Émile Blanche, 1903
James Joyce by Jacques-Émile Blanche
James Joyce by Jacques-Émile Blanche

7. Mixed Signals

Even though Charles Conder in the portrait below gives a seated version of the aggressive hands-on-hips gesture, his right hand crosses his body in a protective mode, giving mixed signals.

Crossed legs tend to indicate a degree of caution or disinterest, ranging from feeling threatened, to mildly insecure.

Does this reveal anything about his personality, character, or history? Possibly.

The story goes that as a struggling 20-year-old Brtish artist living in Australia and short of cash, Conder paid his landlady through sexual means, catching syphilis in the process, which plagued him in later life.

Shown here at age 36, just four years before he died, his body language reflects his sensitivity about the origins of his condition.

Charles Conder by Jacques-Emile Blanche, 1904
Charles Conder by Jacques-Emile Blanche, 1904

8. Eye Gestures

It is said that the eyes are windows to the soul—and there’s a reason for that.

Our eyes send many non-verbal signals to others.

It seems almost inconceivable, but our ability to lock onto these signals is so highly developed that we can tell if someone has direct eye contact with us from a distance of 130 feet or more.

A “glazed-over” look, a piercing stare, a furtive glance, or even moistening eyes before tears—we can spot them all.

When eyes avoid contact, they can be signaling one of two things: (i) I don’t want to draw attention to myself (ii) I’m superior to you and you’re not really worth my attention.

The portrait below is of Queen Consort Marie of Romania. Body language is not an exact science, but can you guess a probable signal she is sending?

In the other portrait of Paul Morand, he is looking down and facing left. This means that he is recalling a situation from memory or rationalizing something through self-talk, typically to arrive at a view or decision.

Marie of Rumania by Jacques-Émile Blanche
Marie of Romania by Jacques-Émile Blanche
Study Portrait of Paul Morand by Jacques-Émile Blanche, 1886
Study Portrait of Paul Morand by Jacques-Émile Blanche, 1886

9. Tilting the Head

The position of our heads also gives powerful non-verbal signals.

Thanks to a very flexible neck structure, we can turn, tilt, jut forward, or withdraw our heads to give additional meaning to communication.

Tilting our head to one side is often a signal of interest, suggesting trust. Can you see that in the first example of the French writer Andre Maurois (1885 – 1967)?

Displaying vulnerability is another meaning of tilting our heads to one side. Do you think the portrait of composer Percy Grainger (1882 – 1961) makes him look vulnerable?

Andre Maurois by Jacques-Émile Blanche
Andre Maurois by Jacques-Émile Blanche
Percy Grainger by Jacques-Émile Blanche, 1906
Percy Grainger by Jacques-Émile Blanche, 1906

10. Poker Face

Is there a way to avoid giving off any non-verbal signals?

Yes. We’ve all seen movies of the “poker faced” card player that others cannot read.

By relaxing our facial and jaw muscles, we can achieve a “deadpan” or “neutral” face as demonstrated here by the famous French author Marcel Proust (1871 – 1922). Can you tell what he’s thinking? Not really possible, is it?

Under high-pressure situations, a poker face shows others that you can keep things under control. Since emotional outbursts have been shown to be counterproductive in business settings, this is a useful skill to nurture.

Portrait of Marcel Proust by Jacques-Emile Blanche, 1892
Portrait of Marcel Proust by Jacques-Emile Blanche, 1892

David James

David James

A Brit living in the United States, I'm interested in how we can better use technology to learn and collaborate. My interests include history, creativity & innovation, British culture and travel, philosophy in business, and educational technology.

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