Chadds Ford Historical Society

Revisiting History

Mythbuster Friday: “It Will Cost You An Arm and A Leg”

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Myth: Men of the 18th century are often painted with one hand inside their vests to save money. This is because the artist would set the price based on how many hands, arms, or legs were in the painting. From this came the phrase: “It will cost you an arm and a leg.”

Truth: This is a widely circulated myth, one you might even hear from tour guides. The premise behind this myth is that, in order to save money, a gentleman may have slipped his hand inside his vest or agreed to have a piece of furniture painted over his leg. The hands were difficult to paint, so the artist would increase the price based on how many hands he was required to paint. Likewise, the more limbs included, the higher the price for the portrait. This practice was so common that the phrase, “It will cost you an arm and a leg” became a metaphor to mean that it will cost you a ludicrous amount of money.

This myth, though it attempts to provide an explanation for the peculiar pose of one hand inside the vest, is completely false. First, gentlemen of high stature and royalty used this pose. The most memorable instances of this trend are the portraits of George Washington, Napoleon Bonaparte, and King George III. These men were certainly not concerned about saving money from having their likeness rendered for posterity in these elaborate paintings. A more plausible explanation for this posture is the theory that classical orators in ancient Rome were immortalized with this pose and refined gentlemen sought to emulate them given the profound influence of Roman history, law and culture on their society.

George Washington King George III

The main reason the phrase “it will cost you an arm and a leg” couldn’t refer to paintings is that the exact phrase did not show up until around World War II, and this is when the phrase was most in use. It was most likely referring to the war veterans for whom the war literally did cost an arm or a leg. The metaphor, i.e. “I’d give my right arm for that,” can be found as early as the late 18th century, but it wasn’t popular until much later and there is no proof that it did refer to paintings.

The “arm and leg” theory also simply makes no sense. If you look at the above paintings, they are extremely elaborate and detailed. These clearly cost a lot of money, but it would make a lot more sense that the price was based on the size and detail versus the number of limbs included. This erroneous myth probably started because it is normal for the size of the painting to increase when more limbs are included, so people mistakenly assumed the price grew based on arms and legs rather than size.


Photo Credit:

“The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries” by Jacques-Louis David

“George Washington by Peale 1776” by Charles Willson Peale

“George III” by William Buchy

Post by Anne Ciskanik

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