Take a Seat – Take a Moment 26

Cambridge, May 2011

I have posted 32 photographs under the title Take a Seat – Take a Moment (including this one).  This subject, people sitting in a public or semi-public setting, has now developed into a definite project, as I suggested in my post of 21st March 2019.  The people in the photographs posted are engaged in diverse activities, drawing, smoking, invigilating, waiting for a train and so on.  The majority (23) fall into four main groups: reading, relaxing in thought, eating and drinking and using a mobile phone.

Madonna Enthrone With Saints, Fra_Filippo Lippi, 1445

This is only a small sample from what will eventually be a much larger collection, but it is interesting to compare it with how artists have traditionally depicted a seated figure or figures as the main subject of a painting, leaving aside the formal portrait, which is a special case. I looked at 472 paintings from half a dozen sources. Separating the rest into simple subject categories is complicated by the fact that pictures rarely show just one activity: people relaxing may also be enjoying a view; an artist painting and a musician performing may also be people at work; and the members of groups eating and drinking will also be interacting with each other.  I have tried to define what appears to be the predominant activity to provide a description that helps to draw out differences between paintings.

Just as my photographs of people using mobile phones reflect our times and technology, so do some features in western painting since the 13th Century.  The seated Madonna and Child is one of the most frequent subjects, echoing the prevailing beliefs, culture and purposes of art.  Figures on horseback show not just a historic means of transport, they are also statements about social status.  These two subjects are unlikely to appear in many subsequent photographs made for this project.

Old Woman Cooking Eggs, Diego Velázquez, 1618

Aside from portraits, Madonnas and riders, the seated figure as subject appears in myriad guises through western painting, from praying to giving blessings, smoking to cooking, bathing to writing and seduction to playing cards.  The mix changes over time as the dominance of religious, classical and history painting increasingly gives way to genre painting and painting of modern life from the 18th Century. It’s a shift that is reinforced by the advent of photography, which frees painting from the demands for formal portraiture.

Subway Riders in NYC, F. Luis Mora, c.1910-1915.

Among the subjects favoured by painters, in a rough order of frequency, are: groups of two or more people interacting (including romantic exchanges); people resting, relaxing, thinking; people reading; individuals or groups eating and drinking; musicians performing; people contemplating a view or work of art; domestic scenes; and artists painting or drawing.  The overlap with the emerging subjects in Take a Seat is clear and will probably become more consistent as the project progresses.

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