In the previous two articles in this series, I’ve shown a selection of paintings starting in the late Middle Ages, reaching the late nineteenth century, in which a common theme is reading and the book. Originally a sign of religious devotion, the Renaissance saw the emergence of paintings of women reading. Many have reflected changes in education and society which have brought literacy to the masses.
Many may have been capable of reading, but the significance of reading and books could still be sinister.
Jean-Paul Laurens’s undated painting of Goethe’s Faust shows him as a small figure sat in a chair much too large for him, studying the pages in a huge book about the Black Arts.
Louis Welden Hawkins’ Solitude from about 1890 is a bridge between this artist’s early Naturalist paintings of the rural poor and his later Symbolism. Read at face value, it shows a young woman reading her Missal or Bible in an overgrown churchyard, in quiet piety. But it’s late autumn already, the leaves have fallen from the tree behind her, and two black crows are above. Are they harbingers of death, or symbols of magic? The intense quiet is slightly sinister.
We often overlook the paintings of many foreigners who flocked to Paris to learn to paint. This is the brilliant Japanese artist Kuroda Seiki’s Woman Reading from the same year, among the finest versions of this motif.
For some, a woman reading remained dangerous. Tony Robert-Fleury’s undated Charlotte Corday at Caen in 1793 was probably painted in the last decade or so of the nineteenth century. Its heroine, who is shortly to stab Marat to death in his bath, is here strolling in her garden at home, near Caen, reading Plutarch as she psychs herself up to travel to Paris and change history.
Marie Spartali Stillman’s exquisite portrait of Beatrice (1896) refers to Dante’s Vita Nuova, through Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s popular translation into English. In this her first version, she shows Dante’s beloved Beatrice lost in contemplation while reading, an intimate insight set firmly in the Pre-Raphaelite mediaeval.
Reading wasn’t confined to school, which was now firmly rooted into the domestic routine.
Carl Larsson’s atmospheric watercolour Homework from 1898 shows two of his children reading in the evening by the light of a kerosene lamp.
Long before the days of radio let alone television, reading became popular entertainment. LA Ring’s Housewife’s Evening Party from 1905 shows a very different sort of party from those being painted at the time in cities like Paris. This housewife sits knitting, as her husband and a friend discuss a book by the light of the kerosene lantern. They are not poor by any means: there are portrait paintings on the wall, and a clock ticking softly above them, and the man holding the book draws on a large and ornate pipe. They are also clearly literate and educated people. But it’s a far cry from the life of the ‘young things’ in the cities.
Another of Osman Hamdi Bey’s later paintings appropriately features beautiful Arabic and Persian calligraphic art around An Arab Reading (c 1906).
I end this collection with two contrasting paintings by the American artist William McGregor Paxton, who specialised in control of sharpness to produce optical effects in the manner of Jan Vermeer.
Paxton’s domestic interiors included not just posh people, but their servants, here The House Maid from 1910. She should be dusting with the feather mop tucked under her arm. Instead she’s completely absorbed in reading. The sharpest focus here is in the maid’s left arm and shoulder, rather than the objets d’art on the chess table in the foreground. Here, reading is something of a socially revolutionary act: a maid with aspirations beyond her station.
Paxton’s Woman with Book from about 1910 is one of his works in which he adopts the style of Vermeer. Sunlight pours through the window at the left, as a woman (who even looks like one of Vermeer’s models) stands reading a large book. Its optical focus seems to be in the purse which she holds high against her left shoulder. Look too at those blurry bright reflections below the arm of the chair in the left foreground.
There seem to be endless possibilities in paintings of reading, particularly those of a woman reading.