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History of the Hand in Art
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Nature standardizes all hands to laws of mechanics and dynamics. The hands of the mummies of ancient Egypt, thousands of years old, are not different from those of today. The bones of prehistoric man are the same. Ninety per cent., and more, of the hand is standardized by its use to the unchanging laws of its use.
But the hand as drawn and sculptured has varied markedly in different ages. Cave dwellers marked the walls and roofs of their dwellings and their implements with signs and figures, and among them, hands. The hands they drew or carved had a general character distinctly of that age.
The Peruvian, the Aztec, the American Indian in his written sign language, the Alaskan on his totem pole, each of these—whether the hand was carved out or cut in, drawn or painted, in red or blue, wherever a hand was shown—adhered to a certain style of hand whose character marked it as belonging to that age or that tribe or that race, and all distinctly different from other periods or races or tribes.
The Assyrians graved hands on their palace walls and carved them in stone; and they were Assyrian hands, distinguishable easily from those of any other race or age. The Egyptians told stories by means of carved and painted hands, as individual as those of any other place or time.
When we come to the ages of a more studied art, the same psychological law is in evidence. There is an early Gothic hand, distinctly different from that of any other period.
There is a Renaissance hand with a character of its own; so much so that they can be picked out and classified, not only as Renaissance hands, but as early or late Renaissance hands.
No one questions the sincerity of Ghirlandajo, or of Lippi, or of Botticelli. Not only were they great masters, but close students, and yet each drew a different style of hand.
Of later schools the same thing may be said; as of the Venetian and the Dutch schools, and of the schools of Jordaens, Rubens and Van Dyck. Of Van Dyck it has been said that he could not draw the hand of a laborer, and of Millet that he could not draw a gentleman's hand.
Indeed, it is very far from accurate to say that we see with our eyes. The eye is blind but for the idea behind the eye. It is the idea behind the eye that makes it different from a photographic plate—that pricks out some parts with emphasis and censors other parts. We see with the idea, and only through the eye.
Michael Angelo, Leonardo Da Vinci and Raphael, all of the same period, all had the same style of models, and yet they produced hands of three very distinct types.
Albert Dürer, Holbein the younger, Rembrandt, all made hands that, because of their individuality, are classed as a Holbein or a Dürer or a Rembrandt hand by the art world.
Reasons for this change and flux in character and style of hands are no doubt familiar to every one. Briefly, the hand as pictured is not subject to the automatic forces that standardize the actual hand to the laws of its use. The pictured hand is standardized to no laws except those of perception ; which means to the current concepts and to individual taste. The business of the artist in such a connection is to standardize his concepts of the hand to those of nature—to see it as nature sees its purpose, methods, laws.
It may be reflected that the science of anatomy is a comparatively recent acquisition of the race. It is not many decades since the cutting up of the human body was forbidden by law and abhorred in religion. Even after such a study is well developed, it takes a certain time for its significance to penetrate to other domains of thought and effort, and a much longer time for it to be assimilated there.
It has taken man centuries to learn to look under the form for the mechanisms in the human body; and he is only now learning to look under the mechanisms for the reasons that underlie them. The world of art is beginning to appropriate these things to itself, and the improvement in one man's technic by this means compels others to seek improvement in the same school—the school of nature, her reasons and her purposes.
If this tendency to fluctuations, to styles and fashions is more marked in the hand than in other parts of the body, it is probably because the importance of the hand as an avenue of expression has not been understood. The hand is thought of as the slave of action. But the slave of action is the master of expression.
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The face is well schooled to self-control as a rule, and may become an aid in dissimulation of thought and feeling.
Rarely is the hand so trained; and responding unconsciously to the mental states, it may reveal what the face would conceal.
Like any other living thing, the hand is modified to its use. The total modification in any individual is less than one per cent.; but in a succession of generations it may be cumulative. Also it happens that it is the more superficial and conspicuous parts that are thus modified.
On the background of the mechanics, then, which is older than the human race, we may have racial variations; then on this basis, accumulated hereditary or family modifications, and on them in turn expressions of individual history and character.
The hand of the child is almost unmodified. With its creases and dimples and its tapering fingers, it represents almost the pure symmetry that is the natural heritage of all created things.
The hand of age represents the opposite extreme, the end product, the insanity of over-modification; furrowed, wrinkled with the scars of time, with enlarged squared joints, and shaky.
On the background then of mechanics and racial variations, we have many variations, such as those of youth or age; male or female; healthy or unsound ; laboring or aristocratic; strong or weak.
Types of hands may be classified as: square, round, compact; long or short; thick or thin. The relative length of fingers varies, both among themselves and in comparison with the hand. The relative thickness of joint and shaft and finger tip varies. The thumb may be short, thick or thin, may lie close or spread far from the hand.
The hand that is inured to heavy labor shows very definite changes. It is larger and heavier. The muscles are of course developed, but these lie for the most part above the hand in the forearm. Those of the thenar and hypothenar eminences are somewhat larger and more square. Chiefly, the joints become enlarged, square and rugged and irregular in appearance. The tendons are more in evidence. The skin is hardened, so that creases are deeper; especially are the skin pads heavier and may overhang the borders. The skin hairs may stand up like bristles. In repose it assumes a more crooked position. Clenched, with the aggressive thumb twisted around the fingers, it becomes a squared, knobbed and formidable looking weapon.
The converse of this is true in the hand not inured to labor. The muscles of the palm present a softly rounded appearance, the skin is smooth and silky, the skin pads not clearly demarked; the joints are not only not rugged, but may be unduly flexible, small and weakly angled. The bones of the hand and fingers will have less of the spring curve, that is, will be straighter, and slighter. The hand will on the whole be much more symmetrical and expressionless.
When the hand is employed in what may by contrast be called the intelligent uses, in which flexibility is necessary, it will have as a consequence greater freedom of movement, will assume much more varied positions, and will express much more readily the mental states. In proportion as this habitual exercise is free and intelligent, will the symmetries assumed be free and expressive.
Certain typical positions are due not so much to the mental states as to the mechanics of the hand. For instance, the little finger side is always more flexible than the thumb side, because it is opposite to the powerful thumb. The middle finger is always inclined to bend farther forward, or to bend forward first; this on account of its relatively greater power. All fingers bend forward first at the knuckles, then at each joint in turn. The thumb is habitually carried somewhat extended, out of the way of the fingers.
Modern psychology, studying the dynamics of the nervous system, informs us in regard to many of the instinctive positions and actions of the body (including the hand) and the things expressed by them. For instance, there is a wholly involuntary opening out movement of the whole body, limbs and features, in pleasant emotions, honesty, courage, understanding, etc.; and conversely, there is a closing up, a drawing in, a turning away, in unpleasant emotions, in mental dishonesty, etc.
In states of self-consciousness, and the effort at self-control, there is a tendency to express the same by clasping one's self ; as clasping the thumb with the fingers; clasping or twisting the other hand, or some part of the body.
The wrist bones are collectively smaller than the end of the forearm, so there is a constriction at the sides.
The wrist bones are in two transverse layers with an angle between, forming in profile view a hook, point backward (mechanisms, page 159); over which is a step-down to the back of the hand. A little to the outer side, this is bridged by the extensor tendons.
The rows of wrist bones are arched toward the back. The two pillars of this arch in front far overhang the anterior line of the arm (pages 33, 39, 163). From them arise the thenar and hypothenar eminences, and the palm of the hand.
Except for the thumb and the extensor tendons, the back of the hand is smooth. It is slightly arched from side to side.
It is beveled from knuckles to wrist, and is narrower on the back than on the palmar surface. There is a slight fan-like movement among the bones of the hand.
The general mass of the back flows from the wrist toward the first and second knuckles, and is flattened and thinned toward the little finger side.
Distributed over the back are seen the extensor tendons. These represent two sets which have become blended, so have duplications and various connecting bands. Those to the thumb and little finger remain separate.
1. Extensor communis digitorum.
2. Abductor minimi digiti.
3. Dorsal interosseous.
4. Adductor pollicis.
5. Extensor carpi ulnaris.
6. Extensor minimi digiti.
7. Extensor longus pollicis.
8. Extensor brevis pollicis.
9. Extensor ossis metacarpi pollicis.
Unlike those of the front, the tendons on the back of the hand pass quite high over the wrist. It is clearly impossible to arch the wrist both ways; and flexion being so much more important a function, the extensor tendons are forced far from the centre of movement backward and outward. They converge on the low outer part of the wrist arch. Thus placed they are taut in extreme flexion, so that the fingers cannot be tightly closed.
The thumb side of the wrist arch is larger, higher and projects farther forward, carrying the thumb; it has a deeper inset at the wrist and is square compared with the heel inside, which ends in a ball—the pisiform bone.
On the little finger side of the wrist, between the end of the ulna and the pisiform bone, may be seen a "rocker"—the cuneiform bone.
This is the part of the arch of the wrist immediately above the pisiform—its outer end. It is prominent when the hand is bent to the opposite side or in the act of pulling. It almost blends with the ulna when the hand is carried to that side.
To the four corners of the wrist are fastened four muscles, one of them doubled (that on the back of the first finger side).
1. Extensor carpi ulnaris.
2. Extensor communis digitorum.
3. Extensor ossis metacarpi pollicis.
4. Extensor brevis pollicis.
5. Extensor carpi radialis brevior.
6. Extensor carpi radialis longior.
7 Supinator longus.
8 Flexor carpi radialis.
9 Tendon of the palmaris longus.
10 Flexor carpi ulnaris.
11 Palmar fascia.
Morticed with the bones of the wrist, and moving solidly with them, are the four bones of the hand, one for each finger. Each bone is slightly arched forward, as every bone in the body is slightly arched; they have a shaft with enlargements at each end, also as every other bone in the body. These enlargements are for two reasons—first, safety, on account of exposure and strain at the ends, and second, to afford space for joint surface and for attachment of ligaments and muscles.
Their enlarged ends are in contact with each other not only at the wrist, where they are almost solid, but also at the knuckles, where is some slight fan-like movement, freest in the little finger.
The hand is arched backward from side to side, being highest at the second finger.
The arch reaches from the metacarpal bone of the first finger to that of the little finger.
From the bone of the first finger the mass sets sharply forward toward the thumb.
From the bones of the little finger also it sets sharply forward, forming the back of the hypothenar eminence.
The back of the hand is marked by the prominence of the first two metacarpals at the wrist, by superficial tendons converging on the wrist, often covered with heavy veins, and by the knuckles.
Somewhat raised above the level of the back are the knuckles. They are in a curved line, concave around the base of the thumb; i. e., palmward and wristward. When the fingers are extended, creases form between the knuckles following different directions. These diverge from the middle knuckle, curving over the first and third, while that from between the third and fourth curves over the fourth.
With the palm resting on the table, the weight is carried normally by the little finger side (pisiform bone or heel of the hand). Opposite it is the hook of the unciform. Between them the tendon of the palmaris longus bulges the wrist.
The weight on the thumb side is carried not by the wrist pillar (unciform bone), but by the muscular mass (thenar eminence). The thumb naturally lies on its side, but may by pressure be flattened toward the table.
Enlarged veins have in reality nothing to do with muscular development or rough usage, but are due to conditions of health or ill health. Their size, location and elevation are extremely variable. The same thing is true of the skin hairs, although these are more likely to be erect and therefore conspicuous in the hands roughened by labor.
1. Abductor minimi digiti.
2. Tendons of extensor communis digitorum.
3. First dorsal interossei.
The palm slightly overlies the wrist, and extends to the middle of the first joint of the fingers. It is made of three portions, with the hollow of the palm between them.
On the thumb side is the largest of these portions, the thenar eminence; opposite it is the hypothenar eminence, and across under the knuckles is the third portion, the mounds of the palm.
The thenar eminence is high, fat and soft; it contains the short muscles of the thumb and forms with the bone the pyramidal first segment of it.
The hypothenar eminence is longer, lower, harder and more triangular. It contains some muscles of the little finger, large on account of the exposed position of that digit, and part of the palmaris brevis. It reaches as far as the base of the little finger, blending there with the row of mounds. At the wrist it covers the pisiform bone, with a heavy fibrous pad like that of the heel.
The bones as a group form a mass that is beveled from wrist to fingers, and from thumb to little finger side, in profile; and in palmar or dorsal view, from knuckles to wrist. The mass is slightly concave forward, following the curve of the wrist.
1. The hypothenar eminence, composed of the abductor, flexor and opponens muscles of the little finger.
2. The thenar eminence, composed of the abductor, adductor, flexor and opponens muscles of the thumb.
3. Palmar fascia and the fibrous expansion of the palm.
4. Palmaris longus—arises from internal condyle of the humerus, passes over the annular ligament and ends in the palmar fascia. (Page 55)
The mounds of the palm are beyond the line of knuckles on the back, lying over the enlarged ends of the first phalanges.
They are flattened, bulged or wrinkled, according to the position of the fingers.
The hollow of the palm is triangular, traversed by the tendon of the middle finger.
1. Adductor transversus pollicis.
2. Flexor brevis pollicis.
3. Abductor pollicis.
4. Opponens pollicis.
5. Flexor brevis minimi digiti.
6. Abductor minimi digiti.
7. Annular ligament.
8. Flexor carpi radialis.
9. Palmaris longus.
10. Flexor carpi ulnaris.
Excerpted from THE BOOK OF A HUNDRED HANDS by GEORGE B. BRIDGMAN. Copyright © 1962 Sterling Publishing Company. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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