green iphone being held in hand

Do We All See the Man Holding an iPhone in This 1937 Painting?

In 1937, Italian semi-abstract painter Umberto Romano completed his masterpiece mural called  “Settling.” The scene is loosely based on events before the Revolutionary War. There was an encounter between members of New England tribes, the Nipmuc and the Pocumtuc, and English settlers in present-day Massachusetts. So why on earth is one of the men in the painting holding what looks like an iPhone?


Is There an iPhone in a 1930s Painting?

Take a look at the man sitting in the lower right quadrant. In his hand, he holds a small rectangular object at eye level. The position is eerily similar to someone scrolling through social media, reading a blog post, or watching a YouTube video. If he was pasted into some other modern painting, he would barely stand out. But here, a man from 1630 in a painting from 1937 seems to be holding technology decades before its creation.

Umberto Romano's painting called "Settling"
Photo credits: Smithsonian 

The portable cellular phone entered the market on April 3, 1973. Steve Jobs revealed the iPhone in 2007, perhaps one of the most intensely popular products in modern history. So there’s no possible way the man could be holding such a device in the picture. This raises the question: What is he holding then?

Taking a closer look at the painting, you see that the focus is on the man in pink, standing front and center stage. He is a depiction of William Pynchon. In his time, he advocated for peace and friendship with the Native Americans in order to increase the trade of goods. He also wrote The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption, the first book to be banned and burned in America. In it, he argued against Puritan theology so it was banned for its heresy. Only four copies survived. Pynchon is also the colonial ancestor of Thomas Pynchon, a novelist and short-story writer who is 84 years old today. He is known for his fantasy settings, black humor, and the themes of chaos in modern society. [1] 

Here’s a funny coincidence. Thomas Pynchon was born in 1937, the same year Romano completed “Settling.” Furthermore, Pychonon’s fiction often depicts technology as potentially harmful. An ironic connection to a painting of a 1630s man holding an “iPhone.”


So What is The Man Holding?

Unfortunately, Romano died in 1982 at 72 years of age. He hasn’t publicized any remarks about the man who seems to be holding something resembling an iPhone. His intentions for the painting have gone with him to his grave. However, New York City-based writer and historian Daniel Crown has a theory about that object.


“To put it in the kindest possible terms, Romano’s so-called ‘abstract’ aesthetic was willfully ambiguous,” Crown said in an email interview with Vice. “When Romano painted the mural, Americans were obsessed with the ‘noble savage’ trope. Given the scene’s focus on the founding of Springfield, Romano, in reductive fashion, was probably trying to capture the introduction of modernity into a curious but technologically stunted community, which was instantly bewitched by Pynchon’s treasure trove of shiny objects.[2]

This theory explains the other goods depicted, such as crates with jugs and other trade items. Therefore, it stands to reason that the man is examining something of European origins, something new to him. Crown believes the “iPhone” is supposed to be a mirror. And now the eye level with which the man holds it makes sense; he’s looking at his own reflection.


A mirror actually lines up with history. In the 1600s, Europeans introduced different items to the Native Americans, including mirrors. According to Dr. Jessica R. Metcalfe, “many Native nations incorporated [mirrors] into tribal aesthetic and cultural contexts.” she wrote in a 2011 blog post. [3]

And Native art specialist Edwin L. Wade in his 1986 book The Arts of the Native American, commented on the different uses for mirrors.


For Native Americans, mirrors were symbols of wealth and prestige,” he wrote. “They were commonly mounted in dance batons or other objects of ceremonial regalia, since it was their light-reflective property, not their ability to reflect images, that was considered important.”

So Many Inaccuracies

Another theory is that the iPhone-like object is actually a pocket-sized version of a religious book, such as the gospels or Psalms, according to Crown. Dr. Margaret Bruchac, Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Coordinator of the Native American & Indigenous Studies Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania believes it was actually an iron blade, with the sharp edge on the man’s palm. However, what’s important to note is that the painting’s depiction isn’t very inaccurate.


There are so many things wrong with this image that it’s hard to know where to begin,” said Bruchac. “This artist obviously had never seen many of the objects he depicts.” These inaccuracies range from the pink suit, the “garb” of the woman in the lower left quadrant, the shape of the shipping crate, and the witch flying on a broom.

Suffice to say that this image is a record of a romanticized artistic genre that says much about modern American fantasies and fictions of colonial White dominance vis-à-vis Indians,” Bruchac said, “while conveying virtually no useful information about Native American peoples themselves.”

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  1. Thomas Pynchon.” Britannica. J.E. Luebering.
  2. “Do We All See the Man Holding an iPhone in This 1937 Painting?” Vice. Brian Anderson. August 24, 2017
  3. “A ‘Look’ at Indians and Mirrors.Beyond Buckskin. Dr. Jessica R. Metcalfe. February 18, 2011