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Does This Painting from 1860 Show a Woman Glued to Her Smartphone?

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What’s this? Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller’s 1860 painting “The Expected One” shows a young woman walking along, staring at her smartphone?

In 1860?

It’s an illusion, based on our modern-day reading into it. It’s much like the web meme: “Don’t believe everything you read on the internet – Abraham Lincoln.”

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Twenty years ago, much less 162 years ago, when the painting was finished, no one would have perceived the woman as staring into a smartphone.

Because there were none, and except maybe for the vision of Steve Jobs or Star Trek, no one would have had something like a smartphone in mind.

Rather, most people, instead of jumping to the conclusion it was something with which they were familiar — today’s smartphone — presumably would have taken a closer look and realized the young woman was focusing on a prayer book or a hymn book.

It was Peter Russell, a retired government official in Scotland, who first publicly called attention to Waldmüller’s painting, according to The New York Post.

Did you see a cellphone when you first saw the painting?

“What strikes me most is how much a change in technology has changed the interpretation of the painting, and in a way has leveraged its entire context,” Russell said.

“The big change is that in 1850 or 1860, every single viewer would have identified the item that the girl is absorbed in as a hymnal or prayer book. Today, no one could fail to see the resemblance to the scene of a teenage girl absorbed in social media on their smartphone.”

Indeed. It’s because how people conduct themselves in public has changed in fairly recent times. Note the ways people — especially young people — have walked down a sidewalk or across a campus over the years.

Thirty years ago, they just walked. Twenty years ago, they walked talking into a cellphone seemingly fastened to their ear.

Now, they often walk with their eyes cast down, looking at something in their hands, much like the young woman in the painting.

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And, of course, people seemingly talking to themselves often got focused attention until more people learned about and got used to the ubiquity of Bluetooth earpieces.

How people walk today can cause a questioning of the interpretation of Waldmüller’s painting.

And there’s a name for such a thing, primarily among history scholars. It’s called presentism — the projection of today’s values on people who lived in the past.

Presentism can result in a distortion of what was really going on. And it ignores what was said by novelist L.P. Hartley: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

Meaning Waldmüller did not paint a smart phone.

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Mike Landry, PhD, is a retired business professor. He has been a journalist, broadcaster and church pastor. He writes from Northwest Arkansas on current events and business history.
Mike Landry, PhD, is a retired business professor. He has been a journalist, broadcaster and church pastor. He writes from Northwest Arkansas on current events and business history.




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