While working on a design in 1956 for a monumental figure to be placed in front of the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, Moore conceived and executed various seated figures, before settling on the reclining nude woman that he carved in travertine marble during 1957-1958 to fulfill the commission (Lund Humphries, no. 416). Many of the alternative figures were also realized in a definitive state, including Draped Seated Woman (LH, no. 428; fig. 1), for which the present sculpture is the intermediate-sized model.
Until this time, Moore had concentrated mainly on single reclining and standing figures. Seated figures had previously constituted the basis of his mother or Madonna and child sculptures, as well as the Family Groups, in which the seated posture served to emphasize the harmonious inter-relationships among the figures. During the mid-1950s Moore isolated the idea of the seated female, and developed it into a self-contained and fully expressive figure in its own right. This conception of the human form posed a unique challenge: unlike the reclining or standing poses, a seated figure required some manner of prop to support it, an architectural element that was distinct from the figure yet at the same time integral to the overall conception of the sculpture. To this end Moore created different kinds of environments that form an extension of the figure into the space below and around it, which, as Grohmann has noted, "are the expression of a particular sculptural and psychological content." He continued: "Repose as waiting and repose as the springboard for movement, sitting as an expression of composure, as in the case of the archaic Greek goddesses, and sitting as an expression of the movement before rising, jumping up, going into action--this is the human aspect... the 'Seated Figures' belong to our own day and age; they are superior, modern beings, guardians of a university, a museum or a public square" (The Art of Henry Moore, London 1960, p. 229).
Among the solutions that Moore came up with to support the seated figures were benches, simple block-like supports, or low steps, in some cases set before a wall of varying height. The Draped Seated Woman on steps is perhaps the most open and transcendent of these conceptions --Grohmann observed that she "sits very erect, gazing out from the topmost step into space" (ibid.). The lack of obstructing architecture creates an unconfined environment, allowing the figure to be viewed from all angles. The ascending series of five steps significantly elevates the figure, suggesting from various angles a sense of spiritual fulfillment associated with this fundamentally pyramidal structure. While undertaking the full-size version of Draped Seated Woman, in which the figure is nearly six feet high, Moore realized that the massive solidity of the steps threatened to distract from the natural, flowing grace of the figure, and he accordingly lowered and simplified the steps into a simpler, two-tier structure (as seen in fig.1).
Moore's female figures are mostly unclothed, but during the early 1950s the sculptor became interested in draped forms. He had long studied the Elgin marbles and other Greek sculptures in the British Museum, and in 1951 he made his first trip to Greece. Following his return he created his Draped Reclining Figure, 1952-1953 (LH, no. 336), the earliest of his major draped figures, for the terrace of the Time-Life Building on Bond Street, London. The sculptor wrote: "Drapery can emphasise the tension in a figure, for where 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... Also in my mind was to connect the contrast of 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... I found that using drapery in sculpture was a most enjoyable exercise in itself" (quoted in A. Wilkinson, ed., Henry Moore: Writings and Conversations, Berkeley, 2002, p. 280).
(fig. 1) Henry Moore, Draped Seated Woman, 1957-1958. The Henry Moore Foundation, Much Hadham.