By the 1950s, Henry Moore was widely hailed as Britain's most important post-war artist, whose sculptures were gaining an ever-growing international audience. Conceived in 1957-58, at the very height of his career, the monumentally scaled Draped Reclining Woman is one of Moore's most exceptional studies of the female form and an important development in his exploration of the sculptural effects of drapery on the figure. Moore's preference for the recumbent human form was founded on the belief that he could express the particular qualities specific to a certain mood or atmosphere in a way that was denied in other poses. It was also the position that allowed him the most freedom compositionally and spatially, offering him enough variation to last him a lifetime. 'From the very beginning,' Henry Moore reflected in 1968, 'the reclining figure has been my main theme. The first one I made was around 1924, and probably more than half of my sculptures since then have been reclining figures' (in A.G. Wilkinson, ed., Henry Moore: Writings and Conversations, Los Angeles, 2002, p. 212). The reclining figure remained the dominant subject of his sculpture, offering an ideal vehicle for Moore's most persistent spiritual and formal preoccupations. 'The vital thing for an artist' he stated, 'is to have a subject that allows [him] to try out all kinds of formal ideas. . . . In my case the reclining figure provides chances of that sort. The subject-matter is given, so that within it, within the subject that you've done a dozen times before, you are free to invent a completely new form-idea' (ibid., p. 212).
Beginning in 1952, Moore conceived various series of bronze reclining figures in progressively more unstable asymmetrical positions. Where at first all four limbs were evenly grounded, reminiscent of the static and weighty Chacmool figures of pre-Columbian art, whose stiff and expectant postures had been amongst Moore's earliest inspirations, each new incarnation dramatized the tension manifest in the figure by shifting its weight to one arm or the edge of a foot or leg. With her right arm planted on the ground beneath her for support, her leg partially lifted and chest thrusting forward, Draped Reclining Woman of 1957-58 seems less supine than alertly propped up, a figure ready to spring into action. It was Moore's aim to instill his sculptures with a force that projects from within, like bones against skin, and his forms convey an internal structure and vitality that presses outwards. Moore achieves this aim in Draped Reclining Woman through the palpable strain in the limbs and the push and pull of fabric, lending the figure an organic energy and a sense of impending movement that serves to make us more aware of the form and dynamism of our own bodies.
From the 1950s onwards, with a huge increase in commissions, Moore produced much larger sculptures, and employed assistants including Anthony Caro, Phillip King, John Farnham, and Malcolm Woodward to help him. During this period, Moore received a prestigious commission to produce a large public sculpture for the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. Alongside Draped Seated Woman of 1956, Draped Reclining Woman is the most important sculpture connected with Moore's search for a suitable subject for this renowned commission. Although Moore decided against these unusually detailed sculptures for the UNESCO site, believing that a biomorphic reclining figure would better suit the busy fenestration of the building behind, he decided to develop his ideas into full-scale sculptures in their own right. Draped Reclining Woman was produced one year after the completion the UNESCO sculpture, and represents the increasingly important role drapery had come to play in Moore's work after his encounter with classical statuary during his first visit to Greece in 1951.
In his formative years, Moore had made a conscious effort to avoid the traditions of Greco-Roman art, preferring instead to engage with the vitality of tribal art forms from Africa and South America. The decisive turning point in the resolution of this conflict between the classical and the primitive came during Moore's appointment as an official war artist. With his naturalistic drawings of blanketed people sheltering in the London Underground during the Second World War, Moore discovered a new method of conveying physical tension and inner, psychological content. The distortions of the human body in these 'shelter' drawings found acceptance as an expression of the common tragedy of war, and the marked change in Moore's artistic status in the post-war period is generally linked with to their success. Drawing on his observation of carved Greek drapery and what he had learnt from his study of figures in the Underground, Moore has used the effects of creased cloth to its full effect in this sculpture. 'Drapery', Moore explained, 'played a very important part in the shelter drawings I made in 1940 and 1941 and what I began to learn then about its function as form gave me the intention, sometime or other, to use drapery in sculpture in a more realistic way than I had ever tried to use it in my carved sculpture. And my first visit to Greece in 1951 perhaps helped to strengthen this intention... Drapery can emphasise the tension in a figure, for where the form pushes outwards, such as on the shoulders, the thighs, the breasts, etc., it can be pulled tight across the form (almost like a bandage), and by contrast with the crumpled slackness of the drapery which lies between the salient points, the pressure from inside is intensified. Drapery can also, by its direction over the form, make more obvious the section, that is, show shape. It need not be just a decorative addition, but can serve to stress the sculptural idea of the figure. Also in my mind was to connect the contrast of the size of the folds, here small, fine and delicate, in other places big and heavy, with the form of mountains, which are the crinkled skin of the earth. Although static, this figure is not meant to be in slack repose, but, as it were, alerted (H. Moore cited in, J. Russell, Henry Moore, London 1968, p. 132).
Moore gradually evolved his treatment of drapery from thick, simple creases in carved sculptures to the rippling folds of the present work, which exploits the fluidity and malleability of plaster to create a highly textured surface. Moore connected the expressive quality of these tight crinkles and slack swathes of fabric with topographical troughs and peaks, thereby extending and enriching the landscape tradition that he embraced as part of his English artistic heritage. In this way, Draped Reclining Woman forms a symbiosis between the landscape of the body and that of the earth, reflecting his own on-going portrayal of woman as the archetypal “Earth Mother”, a figure that refashions the anxieties of the post-war era into a protective and nurturing maternal emblem of universal appeal.
The present Draped Reclining Woman is the fifth sculpture in an edition of six works, and is the only sculpture of this important series that remains outside of a public collection. Other casts from this edition can be found at the Tate Gallery, London, the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia, Norwich, the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich, the Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, and the Norton Simon Museum of Art, Pasadena. The original plaster model is in the collection of the Henry Moore Sculpture Center, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.