When Peter Russell paid a visit to Munich’s Neue Pinakothek, he probably didn’t expect to see what he did. Indeed, in one of the paintings on display at the German museum was an object that seemed as if it shouldn’t have been there. Why? Well, this artwork was from the mid 19th century – and one mysterious item depicted in it seems considerably more recent than that.
Russell himself, meanwhile, hails from Glasgow, Scotland. At one point during his working life, he was a local government officer; now, though, he’s retired. And like many of us, Russell goes overseas from time to time. At one point in 2016, for instance, he spent some of his free time soaking up the culture in Munich.
Indeed, while Russell was on his German vacation, he traveled to the Neue Pinakothek museum, which houses 18th and 19th century European art. Among the paintings shown there, moreover, is a piece by Austrian artist Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller; this is thought to have been created in around 1860.
In the artwork, entitled The Expected One, a woman is depicted walking with her head down through the countryside. Meanwhile, a man awaits her, on bended knee and with a rose in his hand. However, what’s arguably most interesting about the painting is the object that the woman seems to be looking at. It certainly captured Russell’s imagination, anyway.
Indeed, Russell noticed that the painting appears to defy all logic and reason – perhaps at first, anyway. That’s because the woman seems to be gazing down at something that couldn’t have existed back in 1860. Well, as far as anyone knows, at least.
In particular, it looked to Russell as if the woman in the painting is staring intently at a smartphone in her hands. Yes, you read that right: a 19th century woman with a smartphone. And that begs one rather crucial question: how did that item end up in Waldmüller’s work, anyway?
Well, some explanations take us outside of the realm of reality and straight into science fiction. Maybe time travelers do exist but only use their incredible power to gift smartphones to artists. It would be a great way to prank everyone, after all, as Russell’s head-scratching discovery proves.
Alternatively, perhaps the smartphone was actually invented generations ago but was kept hidden by a secret organization until the time was right to unleash it upon society? Yeah, that’s an even bigger stretch than the time travel theory. And, alas, the truth of the matter is much more mundane.
Yes, as it turns out, there’s a genuine explanation for the mysterious object that the woman clutches in the painting. And unfortunately for all the sci-fi fans out there, it doesn’t involve anything as awesomely fantastical as era-jumping.
Instead, the object is actually a religious book. That would probably have been more obvious to people around at the time that Waldmüller was painting The Expected One. To Russell, however, the item looked like a smartphone at first glance. And it’s little wonder that it did, considering how ubiquitous cell phones are throughout society today.
It’s even less surprising that Russell jumped to that conclusion when you realize that if the painting was meant to depict the 21st century, very little about it would need to change. After all, pretty much everywhere you go, you can find people staring down at their smartphones while walking.
And the similarities between the 19th century woman and her 21st century counterparts weren’t lost on Russell. “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,” he told Vice website Motherboard in November 2017.
“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,” Russell continued. “Today, no one could fail to see the resemblance to the scene of a teenage girl absorbed in social media on their smartphone.”
Russell had previously discussed the anomalous item while replying to another story, however. Specifically, he revealed his find on a Twitter thread that had originally pointed out something bizarre in yet another artwork. This time, however, the piece in question was from 1937 and depicts English settlers meeting Native American tribes.
And if you look closely, you may spot a familiar sight in Umberto Romano’s painting Mr. Pynchon and the Settling of Springfield. That’s because one of the Native American men also appears to be holding a smartphone. And this, too, seems at first like an anachronism: after all, while 1937 is closer to the present day than 1860, Romano’s artwork was still created decades before the portable telephone was born.
Further adding to the mystery around Mr. Pynchon and the Settling of Springfield, there’s no conclusive evidence either way as to the identity of the strange object. Historian and journalist Daniel Crown thinks that said item is likely a mirror, however. And there may be some truth to that theory, as early American immigrants are indeed thought to have given mirrors as gifts to native peoples.
Plus, the other things depicted in the painting seem to lend credence to that interpretation; there’s jugs there, for one, which could also have very well been traded. Perhaps a mirror was brought by the English settlers, then, and the Native American man is just astonished to see his own reflection. It’s more likely than it being a smartphone, anyway.
As it happens, though, Waldmüller’s and Romano’s paintings aren’t the only artworks in which modern technology seems to have mysteriously showed up. One of 17th century artist Pieter de Hooch’s pieces also appears to boast a similarly anomalous item, in fact.
Specifically, in the scene painted by de Hooch, a man looks to be holding up – you guessed it – a smartphone. This time, though, the item in question is not actually a mirror or a hymnbook but a letter; we can safely assume that, as the painting is titled Man Handing a Letter to a Woman in the Entrance Hall of a House. But the object’s resemblance to a smartphone is so striking that Apple’s Tim Cook even joked about it in 2016.
Nevertheless, unless you really do believe that time travelers exist and are randomly giving iPhones to artists, the explanation for this phenomenon is pretty simple. On the other hand, though, perhaps painters from bygone eras were a little bit more tech-savvy than we had previously realized…