Art gallery visitors stand rapt in front of masterworks, contemplating the brush strokes that make up expressions of artistic genius. In most cases, their appreciation begins and ends with a painting itself. Every so often, however, viewers’ expectations of their contemporary lives alter the way they perceive the works they admire. Yet one painting, known as the ‘Expected Woman’ – Die Erwartete or in more recent times ‘The iPhone Painting’ holds a rather intriguing secret.
The case of a painting housed in Munich’s Neue Pinakothek museum presents just such a collision between an artist’s intentions and the period in which he worked. With what some 21st century viewers think they see hidden within the frame of the painting.
So when Peter Russell, a retired Scottish policy advisor, traveled from his Glasgow home to Munich on a cultural vacation in 2016, he found himself in the Neue Pinakothek, an art museum with a collection centered around 18th and 19th century European art. King Ludwig I of Bavaria founded the museum in 1853.
In 1949, its original home became a casualty of World War II. The facility Russell visited, a postmodern structure that opened in 1981, features a collection of more than 3,000 paintings, with some 400 of them on display.
In the Neue Pinakothek museum, Russell stood staring in amazement at what a painting titled “Die Erwartete” appeared to depict. Painted in oils on wood, “Die Erwartete” (“The Expected One,” or “She Who Is Awaited,” also known as “Sunday Morning”) depicts a young girl dressed in her Sunday best. Walking in the countryside on a dirt and rock pathway, she approaches the edges of a forest.
Hidden from her view, a young man kneels near a tree. He gazes in the girl’s direction, holding a pink rose that he appears ready to give her. Another blossom adorns the band of his hat. This loving scene, created by Viennese artist Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller in the 1850s, includes viewers in the suspense intrinsic in the young man’s planned gesture. Will the girl accept him and his romantic offering? Will their paths combine, their lives join, and their futures merge? Or will she rebuff him and continue on her way?
This warm, welcoming image contains one additional element that challenges modern viewers’ interpretations and leaves them gaping at the prospect of what it could mean. Carried in the girl’s clasped hands, a small object engages her attention to exclusion of the rest of the world around her. Her head bends slightly downward toward the point of her focus. She appears oblivious to her surroundings because of her concentration on what she holds in her hands.
Consider The Possibilities?
Could it be a smartphone? It certainly resembles one, and the girl’s posture exactly foreshadows the scores of tech-obsessed 21st century cell phone users glued to their screens.
Despite the fact that the iPhone would not be invented for more than 150 years when Waldmüller created “Die Erwartete,” the painting’s subject looks exactly like thousands of distracted smartphone users who walk along sidewalks and hallways, absorbed in what they see on the devices in their hands.
The 1860’s Girl With The Cell Phone ( Die Erwartete ) Expected Woman
Conditioned by the behaviors of modern life, Russell nonetheless realized that the “girl with cell phone” interpretation of the work held no reality in 1850s Vienna, the era in which the artist created the work hanging in the museum.
Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller (January 15, 1793-August 21, 1865) painted “Die Erwartete” in the last 15 years of his life. The work reflects the artist’s mastery of the naturalist style, with an attention to detail that demonstrated his love of nature. A former art teacher to the children of Croatian royalty, Waldmüller married an opera singer and toured with her as a set designer.
Back in Vienna, he copied old masters as a learning exercise. His original works included still life and portraits, one of which depicted Ludwig van Beethoven. He joined the faculty at Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts as a professor.
As Waldmüller’s interests turned to natural subject matter, he increasingly began to believe that art instruction should focus on the study of nature. This view contradicted the style consistently taught in academic art instruction at the time. Because of this controversial stance, he faced forced retirement from his professorship in 1857.
Waldmüller did not leave the question of the outcome of the young man’s interest in the young girl in “Die Erwartete” unresolved. A related but later painting, “Der Begegnung” (“The Meeting”), shows the same young couple in an embrace at the edge of the same forest, resolving the unspoken uncertainty of the earlier work.
What so intently engages the attention of the young girl in the country scene of “Die Erwartete”? Is it a smartphone? Was Waldmüller blessed with some prescient vision of technologies yet to come in a distant future? Obviously not.
Only modern viewers, imbued with expectations based on the world they expect to see around them, would overlay those experiences onto a painting from the 1850’s. Not surprising, based on how omnipresent smartphones have become in 21st century life, but not exactly proof of a predictive insight into the future.
Clearly, Waldmüller was not a technology psychic. As Peter Russell commented in an exchange with Motherboard.com, the website of the cable TV channel VICE, mid 19th century viewers would have brought their own expectations of contemporary life to bear on the task of interpreting the painting’s scene, actions, and context.
In fact, in Waldmüller’s lifetime, and in the era in which he painted “Die Erwartete,” viewers’ immediate impressions of the work would have identified the item in the young girl’s hands correctly as a religious book or hymnal. A closer examination of the painting reveals a rosary hanging from her hands. The alternate title of the work, “Sunday Morning,” adds to the likelihood that this young woman travels to church, studying scripture on her way.
Die Erwartete is Not The Only Mysterious Painting
“Die Erwartete” is far from the only painting to prompt 21st century observers to spot a cell phone in the midst of a painted scene in which it constitutes a complete anachronism. Peter Russell’s comments on Motherboard.com came when Brian Anderson wrote an article for the VICE website about yet another work with an apparent cell phone user in the midst of a scene in which the devices shouldn’t exist.
In this case, the work, titled “Mr. Pynchon and the Settling of Springfield” and created in 1937 by Umberto Romano, an Italian semi-abstract painter, depicts an event that occurred before the American Revolution, when members of two native American tribes met with English settlers in what today is Agawam, Massachusetts.
The painting consists of four mural panels. On the first panel, in the midst of other figures, one Native American man stands holding an object in his right hand. His eyes focused on this object, the man appears unaware of the scene in which he appears. His pose and posture match the stance in which cell phone users focus on their screens.
Although the work dates from the 20th century, it predates cell phones by 70 years. Was Romano somehow able to foresee smartphones? Did some secret society develop and conceal cell phones based on alien technology?
Technological Foresights of the Future
What object does the figure in his painting hold and observe? Opinions vary. One credible interpretation comes from a journalist and historian named Daniel Crown, who believed the object might be a mirror. Early European immigrants to what is now New England gave indigenous peoples mirrors as gifts, lending credence to Crown’s theory.
Native Americans prized mirrors more for their ability to reflect light than as ways to see themselves. In an alternate theory, Crown further commented that the object in the painting also could be a miniature religious book. Other experts point to other possibilities, including an iron knife blade. The romanticized nature of the image includes anachronisms that make the painting more of a reflection of Western attitudes than any realistic depiction of Native American life.
What is the Mysterious Object? The Truth Revealed
The truth of the matter, is that the object featured in the painting ( Die Erwartete ) Expected Woman is actually a religious book. That would probably have been more apparent to people around at the time that Waldmüller was painting The Expected One. Of course for Peter Russell, the item in the painting appeared much like a smartphone at initial inspection. To be fair it’s little surprise that it did either, just considering how ubiquitous smart phones and tablets are throughout modern society today.
Other Mysterious Works of Art
“Die Erwartete” and “Mr. Pynchon and the Settling of Springfield” aren’t the only paintings that appear to incorporate anachronistic foresight of cell phone technology, which first appeared in 1973.
A work by Pieter de Hooch, painted in the 17th century, shows a man walking through a room in an urban residence, seemingly unaware of a woman seated nearby with a small dog on her lap. The man’s obliviousness stems from his fixation on a rectangular object clasped between his thumb and the remaining fingers of his right hand. His thumb appears to be scrolling through onscreen content.
The title of de Hooch’s work clarifies the work and corrects any 21st century impression of cell phone use. “Man Handing a Letter to a Woman in the Entrance Hall of a House” excludes the prospect that the artist painted a scene he envisioned based on psychic visions or time travel. Title notwithstanding, the work looks so much like a rendition of the digital lifestyle that in 2016, Apple CEO Tim Cook made a humorous comment about its resemblance to cell phone use.
Peter Russell First Public Comments
Peter Russell first commented publicly on “Die Erwartete” in October 2017, in response to a VICE network tweet about “Mr. Pynchon and the Settling of Springfield.” “Do we all see the man holding an iPhone in this 1937 painting?” asked VICE. “Just like her on the dating app in Waldmüller’s Die Erwartete (c. 1850),” Russell replied, incorporating a photo of “Die Erwartete” into his tweet.
In further discussions with VICE columnist Brian Anderson, Russell identifies context as the most important predictor of how we interpret what we see. The intrusion of technology into daily life changes perception, adding cell phones into every scene and minute of modern existence. As a result, those same intrusions change the context in which humans view the world around them.
Basic Human Psychology
As Peter Russell astutely points out, the tendency to identify smartphone technologies in scenes set long before the existence of phones, let alone cell phones, points to basic psychology. Human beings tend to map their own experiences onto everything they observe, regardless of whether those experiences hold any relevance in interpreting what people observe.
Just as 21st century gallery goers may think they see an iPhone in Waldmüller’s “Die Erwartete,” 19th century viewers would have known that the artist depicted a devout young girl reading her hymnal. Perhaps the one point of similarity in the two eras’ perceptions lies in the recognition that an object could occupy the conscious attention of someone on foot.
If time machines existed, and 21st century visitors could travel back to Waldmüller’s day carrying paintings or photographs of 21st century life, the tables would turn. Perplexed at first by 21st century dress and technology, 19th century viewers would overlay their own experiences on top of what they saw, in an attempt to make sense of scenes that defied their expectations.
The human tendency to use personal experience as a means of explaining the inexplicable much as with stories of hauntings and ghosts makes for a much less exciting tale than the prospect of time travel, secret technological societies, or even the ability to predict future tech.
Is This Really a iPhone in an Old Masterpiece? View More
Of course, the scene depicted in “Die Erwartete” could happen in the 21st century as well, without altering much about the vista or the people in it. Perhaps the fascination with the painting speaks most to how well Waldmüller realized the scene he painted, the emotions just under its surface, and the natural beauty of the landscape.