Hagesandros, Athenedoros, and Polydoros, Laocoön and His Sons, 1506. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
If you’re left-handed, you may rightly feel that the Western world is stacked against you. From the ancient Greeks to contemporary product designers, the right side has long been associated with righteousness, while the left represents all that is gauche (French for left, English for crude).
“Left-handers have always been in the minority, and as we all know, minorities tend to get marginalized and victimized,” explains art historian James Hall, author of the 2008 book The Sinister Side: How Left-Right Symbolism Shaped Western Art. (Lefties, researchers have found, make up roughly 10 percent of the world’s population.)
The victimization of the left is prevalent across Romance languages, beginning with the Latin words for left and right—sinister and dexter, respectively. The left side is considered debased, ‘out of left field,’ the source of left-handed compliments; the right is dexterous, ‘right on,’ and does the ‘right thing.’
These conventions extend to Western art, with compositions historically structured to show positive attributes on the sitter’s right and negative ones on their left. Since these sitters—usually gods, saints, and royalty—were considered more important than the viewers, the division of right and left is traditionally from their perspective. An early example is the ancient Roman sculpture Laocoön and His Sons (c. 40–30 BC). Laocoön, a Trojan who cautioned against bringing the wooden horse into the city of Troy, is depicted battling a swarm of sea snakes. The serpent delivering the sting of death is on Laocoön’s lower left; his upper body strains towards the right, fighting for his life.
Michaelangelo, Last Judgment, 1536-41. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Detail of Michaelangelo, Last Judgment, 1536-41. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Laocoön is a predecessor for the traditional symbolism of Renaissance crucifixion scenes. Christ was nailed to the cross alongside two thieves—the bad one usually appears on his left, the good one to his right. But “the one subject where this really makes a difference is the Last Judgment, where the blessed rise to Christ's right side and the damned are condemned at his left,” says Jonathan Unglaub, professor of Renaissance and Baroque art history at Brandeis University. In Michelangelo’s Last Judgement fresco for the Sistine Chapel (1536–41), Christ’s elevated right arm points the way to heaven. His left hand, unmistakably lowered, dooms sinners to a fiery and cannibalistic hell.
Influenced by biblical imagery, left-right symbolism began to pervade secular portraits as well. Traditional depictions of Adam and Eve almost always placed the coquettish, rule-breaking Eve to Adam’s left, forbidden fruit in hand. In The Arnolfini Portrait (1434) by Dutch painter Jan van Eyck, Giovanni stands to the right and extends his left hand to his wife, relegated to the composition’s darker half. Though both figures are fully lit, the sunny window behind Giovanni is clearly the light source.
“The emphasis on right-sided illumination is reinforced by the candelabra that hangs from the middle of the ceiling,” Hall writes in The Sinister Side. “It has a single candle which, despite it being broad daylight in high summer, has been mysteriously lit, and this is to the right.”
The dichotomy of light and dark, good and evil, right and left, also exists in portraits of individual sitters. Hall believes, in fact, that it helps explain our ceaseless fascination with Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (ca. 1503–06). “The Mona Lisa angles her left shoulder towards us, and only smiles from the left corner of her mouth,” Hall says. “That’s the secret of her success.”
The alluring suggestiveness of the left side has continued into 20th-century portraiture. In Pablo Picasso’s 1932 portrait of his young mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter, “Picasso invests her with a double face,” writes Hall. “The ‘right’ face, which is shown in profile, has an impervious porcelain perfection. The left side of her face is a tumescent lilac penis that hovers over her, ingeniously joined at its base to her mouth and chin.”
More recently, Beyoncé lyrically placed her scorned lover’s belongings in a box to the left, to the left in her 2006 hit “Irreplaceable.” And for those seeking new lovers, most dating apps—inspired by Tinder—use swipes to the left to reject potential matches, and swipes to the right to signal interest.
“In our Western culture, if we draw a line on a whiteboard, we can almost instinctively tell that the past is in the far left, the present is in the center, and the future is in the far right,” says product designer Sadok Cervantes Rabadán. “Tinder works because of this linear association we have with time,” he continues. “We want the things we like in our future, thus you swipe right. We want the things we don’t like in our past, thus you swipe left.”
Boaz Bechar, an entrepreneur with more than a decade of experience leading tech startups, explains that Tinder’s use of right and left is pervasive in contemporary design. “In many software product designs, especially mobile apps which use gestures as part of their interface, you can find that left is associated with going backward, or dismissal, and right as forward, or progress,” says Bechar. “Swiping emails left to clear them from your inbox, or swiping photos left to scroll and view new ones—the left-to-right and back-to-forward motif can be found almost everywhere.”
But there’s hope for the long-victimized left. In Western art, at least, the conventional left-right symbolism has begun to evolve. “Beginning in the 20th century, left has been idealized by creatives of all stripes,” Hall says. “There’s been a rejection of academic slickness in favor of the primitive and untutored and unfinished, and so ‘gauche’ techniques have been cultivated. Everyone now wants to be considered ‘left field.’”