Tuesday, May 14, 2019


Over the years countless illustrators have been tasked with making countless illustrations of a woman sitting in a chair.

For example, the following pictures are all from a 1932 issue of The Saturday Evening Post.  

Each is a conventional, respectable depiction of the human form sitting. Each is by a competent artist searching for a fresh approach.  Yet, there is a sameness to these drawings.

But there was one illustrator in the magazine whose approach stood out from the rest.  John La Gatta  received the same old assignment: draw a seated woman.  But rather than follow the standard conventions for pictures of sitting women, he pushed for something more:  

La Gatta's version of a woman sitting down. She seems to have anfractuous vertebrae and her arms stretch outward like welcoming tendrils.
For other assignments La Gatta would return again and again to the subject of women seated on (or draped sensually over) chairs.  Each new illustration was imaginative, yet truthful:

His pictures remind us of Jane Heap's sly and happy observation:  "Girls lean back everywhere, showing lace and silk stockings...."

The point is not that La Gatta invented a gimmick of using supine postures for women.  The point is that he brought creativity and flexibility to his assignments.   He did not take for granted that seated figures are always perpendicular to the ground.  He did not rest with the predictable rules of anatomy.

And later when it came time for him to draw a woman with perfect posture,  La Gatta's powers of observation provided other ways to make his figures distinctive.  Note here how he exaggerates and plays up her straight bearing, rather than her slouch:


La Gatta became hugely successful in the 1920s and 30s by continuing to look hard at his subject matter after his competitors had stopped looking.  He further supplemented his images with his personal attitudes toward glamour and sensuality.  Together they gave his pictures "that certain something."                                                                                                                                                                   


chris bennett said...

Wonderful post David.
One feels that even if he were tasked with depicting an old crone sat upon a stool knitting in front of the fire he would have invested her pose with your 'certain something'.
I believe that 'certain something' lies deep in the musicality of his forms, and this is what drives the realisation of his figures' page-flexing attitudes.

Li-An said...

So much LaGatta I don’t know. Thanks a lot.

Paul Sullivan said...

Great Post! Your observations and comments are excellent.

Untitled said...

Hi David,
Great posts!
When I saw the title of this post the image that came to mind was an illustration by Eduard Thony in Simplicissimus, I was fortunate enough to see a collection of illustrations at the Hillsborough public library.
I could only find a link to a beach towel that has stolen that image and is selling it on various merchandise.

It would be awesome if you could post some images by him and tell us a little more about him and his work. I think he lived between 1870- 1950. Any books on him currently available also would be good to know to buy.

Thank you. You have a very good blog!

David Apatoff said...

chris bennett-- I agree, there is certainly "musicality" in his forms. We recognize it when we see it but it's tough to explain other than by words such as "musicality."

Li-An-- So much La Gatta that I haven't described here. He lead an incredible life. I highly recommend Jill Bossert's biography of La Gatta.

Paul Sullivan-- Many thanks, I appreciate it.

Amitabh-- Thanks for sending the image from Simplicissimus. I see exactly what you mean-- it's creative in the same way. I like Eduard Thony's work very much, and have a collection of his tearsheets. Perhaps I can display them in a post.

comicstripfan said...

"...there was one illustrator in the magazine whose approach stood out from the rest. John La Gatta received the same old assignment: draw a seated woman."

Since John La Gatta is known to have studied under Kenneth Hayes Miller, is it too recondite to detect any kind of influence on La Gatta’s art in Miller’s pencil on paper “Seated Woman” (n.d.)?

David Apatoff said...

comicstripfan-- I seem to find a lot of images of seated women by Miller, some looking conventional and others not so much. Can you send us to the particular image you mean?

comicstripfan said...

It can be found online at the Simthsonian (SAAM) at: https://americanart.si.edu/artwork/seated-woman-17437 -interesting that it is a not uncommon subject, and it would also be interesting to see Miller’s other (probably more unconventional) takes.

kev ferrara said...

I think it is a testament to LaGatta's immense poetic talent that his work is so beautiful, elegant and truthful that it easily defeats the cigarette propaganda it is pitted against/with.

Joss said...

I inhaled

Richard said...

Really just wild conjecture here, but would this repose have been seen as a bit obscene at the time? Maybe not quite the 'twerk' of the period, but perhaps a pose that women of good breeding wouldn't take in the company of strange men.

A cursory (okay, maybe not cursory) look at the pornography 1930's suggests to me that these sorts of poses were the same poses that pornography had popularized for the ~30 years prior -- women in repose (particularly in the proximity of handsome men) were women who were advertising that they could be 'had'.

If that's true, would it then be more accurate to assume that the other illustrators preferred staid poses for fear of upsetting little old ladies?

Anonymous said...

No it would not - go back to your porn .

Richard said...

I'm on my may back to my porn, but as I go, I do want to consider this once more.

You see, looking at 1910s and 20s candid photography of women sitting, I rarely find any women in such comfortable arrangements. When I do, it's never in the company of men.

Dusting off my 1922 copy of Emily Post's Etiquette, I find these rules for sitting:


Having shaken hands with the hostess, the visitor, whether a lady or a
gentleman, looks about quietly, without hurry, for a convenient chair to
sit down upon, or drop into. To sit gracefully one should not perch
stiffly on the edge of a straight chair, nor sprawl at length in an easy
one. The perfect position is one that is easy, but dignified. In other
days, no lady of dignity ever crossed her knees, held her hands on her
hips, or twisted herself sideways, or even leaned back in her chair!
To-day all these things are done; and the only etiquette left is on the
subject of how not to exaggerate them. No lady should cross her knees so
that her skirts go up to or above them; neither should her foot be thrust
out so that her toes are at knee level. An arm a-kimbo is _not_ a graceful
attitude, nor is a twisted spine! Everyone, of course, leans against a
chair back, except in a box at the opera and in a ballroom, but a lady
should never throw herself almost at full length in a reclining chair or
on a wide sofa when she is out in public. Neither does a gentleman in
paying a formal visit sit on the middle of his backbone with one ankle
supported on the other knee, and both as high as his head.

The proper way for a lady to sit is in the center of her chair, or
slightly sideways in the corner of a sofa. She may lean back, of course,
and easily; her hands relaxed in her lap, her knees together, or if
crossed, her foot must not be thrust forward so as to leave a space
between the heel and her other ankle. On informal occasions she can lean
back in an easy chair with her hands on the arms. In a ball dress a lady
of distinction never leans back in a chair; one can not picture a
beautiful and high-bred woman, wearing a tiara and other ballroom jewels,
leaning against anything. This is, however, not so much a rule of
etiquette as a question of beauty and fitness.

A gentleman, also on very formal occasions, should sit in the center of
his chair; but unless it is a deep lounging one, he always leans against
the back and puts a hand or an elbow on its arms.

It makes one wonder if putting figures in such comfortable positions was less a creative bit of artistry, and more, a rebellious bit of pop immodesty.

How can I be sure that today's photography won't similarly be judged for the lack of creative posing, because more of photos don't look like Kim Kardashian breaking the internet.

kev ferrara said...


Tell your binary brain that there are other words that fall between chaste and obscene in meaning.


Richard said...

I thought I had allowed for that range by tempering my phrasing to "pop immodesty", and carefully picking a photograph of a fully-clothed Kim Kardashian.

Although, granted, people 100 years ago would have found the picture of Kim Kardashian extremely obscene, clothed or not, I think it's safe to say that, given current trends, 100 years from now people will think the scandal around that picture a puritan curio.

During the 19th century, the display of a woman's naked ankle was seen as a bit desperate. And, of course, Annette Kellerman was arrested in 1905 for wearing a little less than a burkini to the beach. (And it's worth noting that 1905 is about half a century closer to when these pictures were made, than these pictures are to today.)

Given that Jean "I like to wake up each morning feeling a new man" Harlow was famously the first woman called a "slut" in a talky, and was causing some scandal with photos like this in the 1920s and 30s, I think it's safe to say that La Gatta allowing the side of a woman's breast to be visible through her tight nighty as she lounges in her boudoir here would have been quite shocking at the time.

kev ferrara said...

LaGatta produced his glamorous work for the most mainstream publications imaginable. These publication sought mass appeal. A little glamour and a hint of sexuality was fine. But I've never seen anything obscene or vulgar or shocking in those pages. Even with the roaring twenties being a liberating time of great social change. (1905 was still quite Victorian in popular attitude, btw. Then: WWI, the movies, automobiles, telephones, city life, female liberation, broadway, pop stars, and fierce newsstand competition brought big changes in a short period of time.)

I didn't follow your Kardashian link.

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Richard said...

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chris bennett said...

Richard with the avatar,
Are you the same Richard without the avatar?
Just wondering in case this voodoo stuff really works...

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