This story is part of DOUBLE TAKES, a Motherboard meditation on the tech-time continuum that reinterprets old art through the lens of modern digital anxieties.
Al MacDonell was cruising the Metropolitan Museum of Art one day a few years ago when he found himself in an out-of-the-way corner of the American Wing, where the lone statue in a room full of paintings and a pair of busts caught his eye. It was a standing, semi-nude woman studying a crucifix held in her right hand. It was the first time MacDonell had ever seen the piece, and it hit him in an instant.
“I do remember walking into that room and seeing her and immediately laughing,” he said.
There in Gallery 759, amid the Thomas Coles and works by other artists of the Hudson River School, the style that dominated the art scene in the United States from roughly 1835 to 1850, MacDonell couldn’t help but see something unintended in the topless statue’s original form. The female subject, set on a slight pedestal and depicted in a moment of quiet enchantment, might well be holding a small Christian cross. But it also happens to look like she’s looking down at her mobile device, MacDonell thought, so much so that he turned to a woman who happened that day to be there in the gallery with him, a total stranger, to see if it wasn’t just him.
“Does anything strike you as odd about this?” he asked.
“She’s looking at her cell phone!” the woman said, laughing.
He took out his own iPhone and snapped a photo of the statue.
It was MacDonell, a retired high school physics and chemistry teacher from Maplewood, New Jersey, who tipped me off to this particular work after reading a column I’d written last year about a painting from 1860 that depicts a young woman holding what appears to be a smartphone. (It’s actually a small prayer book.) The statue at the Met of the woman holding the crucifix? Same vibe, MacDonell intimated over email, attaching the photo he'd taken.
“I don’t remember the artist or the name of the statue,” he added. “But I’m sure anyone who works there would know it.”
It was a Tuesday afternoon in December and Gallery 759 verged on being mobbed. I’d come to see about the statue MacDonell spoke of, American artist Erastus Dow Palmer’s “The Indian Girl, or The Dawn of Christianity,” carved over 160 years ago. And apparently I wasn’t the only one.
What looked like a pit-stop on an elementary school field trip, with two adult chaperones and a dozen or so kids seated in a half-moon at the foot of the 5-foot-tall marble statue, was wrapping up right as I strode in. There it dawned on me, amid the murmur of the group beginning to file out of the room, that I'd come to look at the same thing, an arguably lesser-known work in the museum’s massive collection. (The American Wing alone comprises 18,377 objects, of which 9,816 are currently on view, according to a Met representative.) But also, near as I could tell, none of the kids were distracted looking at their phones, as so many old-timers would like to believe about the youths these days.
Instead, the kids were totally present—transfixed, almost—in the presence of a slab of metamorphic rock whittled down by hand long before cell phones were a thing, before even the advent of electricity. For a good century and a half after its completion, it seems, “The Indian Girl” solely depicted a Native American woman holding a crucifix, bewitched by an outside and potentially corrupting force. At some point, that changed.
The statue has been on consistent display here since it was bequeathed to the Met in 1894 by former New York governor, US senator, and Palmer’s patron, Hamilton Fish. “The Indian Girl” was Palmer’s first attempt at modeling the full-length female figure, and his intention, as the artist explained in a letter to Fish, was to capture the essence of a young Indigenous woman “wandering listlessly in her native forest gathering bird-plumes” when suddenly she stumbles on a foreign object.
Laying eyes on such an “impressive emblem” for the first time, Palmer’s subject holds a downward gaze at the object “with wonder and compassion.” She is transfixed not by the grip of feathers at her left side but rather by something distinctly non-Indigenous, a curious totem of European origin she’s just found wandering the woods. As the artist wrote:
In the half fallen left hand, which holds the object of her former adoration—the plumes, I wish to convey an idea of the partial abandonment of the wild native pursuit, for the higher and more deeply instructing theme, which the [cross] in the more elevated right hand presents.
It’s a gesture that is “emblematic of an ongoing concerted effort to convert Native Americans to Christianity,” Thayer Tolles, an American Wing curator who oversees the statue, told me.
“For a number of years people have observed that her pose suggests that she is looking at an iPhone.”
Before long I found myself alone in the gallery, the field trippers fallen out of earshot. Hardly a crowd. But as I lingered, taking things in by myself up close and from farther points of the room over the next half hour, five passersby did make a point, some more obvious than others, of looking up at Palmer's work. That’s when I flagged down a security guard.
“Do people ever say it looks like she’s holding a cell phone?” I asked, gesturing at the statue.
I could see in his face that the guard knew he had the answer to my question before I’d even said a word. “All the time,” he said.
The guard went on to tell me he’s been working at the museum “a long time” and that visitors have been noting the crucifix-cell phone comparison “for years.” Exactly when is tricky to pinpoint, though we know there came a moment in recent memory when at least some museumgoers passing through Gallery 759 began to see, in a statue dating back to a pre-digital era, a certain something, a defining posture, that looks all-too-familiar by today’s standards.
“For a number of years people have observed that her pose suggests that she is looking at an iPhone,” Tolles said. Each generation and each individual, then again, brings to bear their own contemporary, lived experiences on works of art, effectively altering or obfuscating original meanings, Tolles added. “Looking at art often results in layered viewing experiences.”
In other words, to certain viewers “The Indian Girl” might represent Euro-American domination over Indigenous peoples; others may regard Palmer’s statue on its aesthetic merits, “as a paradigm of American neoclassical sculpture,” Tolles said. Still “others will see a 21st century cult of technology.”
To that point, exactly who was first to note the uncanny smartphone resemblance is just as tricky to trace back as an official starting point when everyone started noticing the resemblance. Spend a little more time digging around and you’ll find nods online, in print, and in real life to the striking visual similarity of Palmer’s statue with someone thumbing through their news feed on any given day over, say, the past half decade. “The Indian Girl,” recast in the overlapping shape of an offline and internet curiosity, has become something of a meme.
Back in 2015, The Civilians, the first theatre-in-residence in Met history, concluded a year-long residency with a selection of works on the American experience that featured Palmer’s “The Indian Girl,” about which one curator noted, “Everybody says, ‘Oh, she’s looking at her cell phone,’” as New York City-based theatre journalist Jonathan Mandell reported at the time.
A year later, Steven M. Bellovin, a computer networking and security researcher at Columbia University, made a passing reference to “The Indian Girl” in his book Thinking Security: Stopping Next Year’s Hackers, which includes an image of the statue, captioned: “Is she reading text messages before getting dressed? Taking a selfie? Not really.”
Bellovin told me over email he happened upon the figure on a visit to the Met around the time he was working on a chapter of that book about passwords and authentication. Specifically, the use of mobile phones as authentication tokens, the problems of which use are twofold, he said: the added costs of tokens, and uncertainty over users being able to realize if they’ve misplaced them.
“But everyone has a phone, and most people check them frequently, often before they get out of bed,” Bellovin added. “So, my brain was thinking along those lines when I was making my way through the museum to see another exhibit.”
When out of the blue, “The Indian Girl.”
As it turns out, Bellovin said he originally included the photo of the statue in the chapter “as a joke.” But he said his editor at the time pushed to keep it in. “Googling showed that I wasn’t the only one who had that reaction to the sculpture,” Bellovin said.
Over on Reddit, in a 2017 post about “The Indian Girl” on the r/sculptureporn subthread, user dr3adlock commented on the resemblance of the crucifix to modern gadgetry, saying, “If that’s not a phone, I don’t know what it can be.” User JohnnyConatus joked, in a separate r/sculptureporn post from last year about the statue, that someone should “please Photoshop in a phone” over the cross in the woman’s hand.
One of the earliest mentions I came across goes to critic Hrag Vartanian, co-founder of the online arts magazine Hyperallergic, who posted a photo of the statue to his Instagram on September 6, 2012. (“Hey miss,” his caption reads, “can you stop using your smartphone in the galleries please?”) I asked Vartanian over Twitter DM if, to his knowledge, this might’ve been the first such mention.
“No idea,” he wrote back. “But that’s what occurred to me when I saw it.”
The earliest mention* I could find came by way of Al MacDonell. The iPhone photo he took of the statue that fateful day, the one he shared with me in his initial reach out, is dated August 9, 2012.
Back in Gallery 759, on my recent visit, the guard made a crack about Palmer toiling over the statue for years, including a statement of purpose, only for the artist’s best intentions to later be shattered as easily as, well, an iPhone screen. This despite a detailed description of the work mounted mere feet away, around the statue’s backside, and despite the obvious: what she’s holding is of course not a 21st century gadget because unless you subscribe to theories of time travel, how could it be anything but a crucifix?
And yet people no longer see “The Indian Girl” holding that particular religious object, as Palmer would’ve had it. Nowadays, when people from around the world stand before the finished work, the guard said, they can't help but see someone holding a ubiquitous consumer product. I know I can't.
The guard started to shuffle off, shaking his head.
“You know,” he said over his shoulder with a light shrug. “This is just an image in our world these days.”
His words still ringing in my head, a pair of young French tourists then breezed into the gallery, cutting a diagonal through the room that had them pass the front of “The Indian Girl” left to right, from cross in one elevated hand to loose clutch of plumage in the other, held down at her side. Barely seeming to break stride, the visitors paused in unison, eyes about level with the figure’s navel. There they hung, if only for a beat, in a soft filter of skylight that had the statue casting double shadows in opposite directions across the floor.
The tourists smirked up at the woman, at the crucifix, then at each other. A hushed giggle. And then they’re gone.
Something tells me I know what they saw.
*Update: Ella Morton, an editor at Atlas Obscura (and friend of Motherboard), has twice posed with “The Indian Girl,” in 2009 (that's a Blackberry she's holding!) and again in 2013. Photo credit to Ella's mother, who first told her, “Hey, stand there and look at your phone, it'll be funny.” I stand corrected.
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See something strange in an image that predates the internet, digital age, or dawn of electricity? Contact this writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.