Images of Women Reading

I was going back through the 2015 miniature calendar my in-laws gave me for Christmas last year, “The Reading Woman,” and thought to myself what a strange set of images it featured. Perhaps the manufacturers were scraping the bottom of the barrel, because I had not seen a single one of these paintings before, and some were downright hideous. Even some that were aesthetically pleasing were ideologically a little weird: the women tend to look either vapid or downright unpleasant. This got me thinking about how reading women have often been portrayed in the history of art.


Bored; so rich she doesn’t know what to do with herself but read? Reading seems to be but one small step away from pure idleness.

Portrait of a Woman in a Fur Wrap, Herman Richir (Belgian)
Portrait of a Woman in a Fur Wrap, Herman Richir (Belgian)

Ditto, except it’s a girl reading picture books. I don’t admire art this abstract.

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Girl in Pink, c. 1906, Samuel John Peploe (Scottish)

These next two women could only be described as unfortunate-looking, if not masculine. Perhaps people worried that too much reading would rob women of their natural femininity?

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Woman Reading, 1913, Rik Wouters (Belgian)
Caterina Reading a Book, c. 1888, James Kerr-Lawson (Scottish)
Caterina Reading a Book, c. 1888, James Kerr-Lawson (Scottish)

Here’s a sweet one. The subject seems pensive, even troubled. Is it by what she’s reading, or is the book her temporary solace from life? I love the colors and the faint echo of the Pre-Raphaelite style. Interesting also to see that it’s by a female painter – all these others have been male visions.

Portrait of Winifred Roberts, c. 1913, Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale
Portrait of Winifred Roberts, c. 1913, Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale

Now this one I really love. The hues and textures in this Renoir-esque painting are soft and inviting, and the subject is looking straight at the painter with a confident, almost flirtatious air. She’s no stick-in-the-mud who’s picked up a book because she has nothing better to do. It’s no wonder this was chosen as the calendar’s cover image.

Parisienne Reading, 1880, Albert Gustaf Aristides Edelfelt (Finnish)
Parisienne Reading, 1880, Albert Gustaf Aristides Edelfelt (Finnish)

Beyond the calendar, a couple of reading women paintings I’ve always liked are by Sir John Lavery and Mary Cassatt. In the former I appreciate how the book cover matches the subject’s lips, and how she seems absorbed without being inaccessible.

Miss Auras, c. 1900, Sir John Lavery [Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]
Miss Auras, c. 1900, Sir John Lavery [Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]
The latter is presumed to be a portrait of the painter’s invalid sister Lydia. I love the coloring, especially the almost wash-out effect whereby the white of the newspaper blends with the reader’s dress. This is one of several paintings that Cassatt did on a similar theme. She’s been one of my favorite painters since I was in elementary school.

Woman Reading in a Garden, 1880, Mary Cassatt [Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]
Woman Reading in a Garden, 1880, Mary Cassatt [Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

Two of the most common images of women reading (you see these turning up as users’ avatars on Goodreads all the time) are by Jean-Honoré Fragonard and Gustav Adolph Hennig. I think they’re so popular because of the warm shades, the straightforward composition, and the subject’s apparent indifference to being watched. These are plucky heroines you feel you can relate to.

A Young Girl Reading, c. 1770, Jean-Honoré Fragonard [Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]
A Young Girl Reading, c. 1770, Jean-Honoré Fragonard [Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]
In the Hennig I especially like how the girl’s parting creates a perfect split down the image that’s mirrored by the book’s spine. Such clean lines in this one, also seen in her eyebrows and lips, and the brown trim on her collar and cuffs.

Lesendes Mädchen, 1828, Gustav Adolph Hennig
Lesendes Mädchen, 1828, Gustav Adolph Hennig

Do you have any favorite – or least favorite – paintings of women reading?

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8 thoughts on “Images of Women Reading

  1. What strikes me about most of them is how uncomfortable they look while reading. Is it the clothes or is it their ladylike posture? The first lady looks comfortable enough, and so does Winnifred Roberts (maybe my favourite), but the one who looks happy to be reading (the one you like – 1880) still looks like her dress is too tight. 🙂
    This woman looks somewhat comfy:http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/02256/woman-reader_2256250b.jpg
    And maybe this one: https://myloveforjesus.files.wordpress.com/2010/11/country-lady-fishing-tackle-reading-book.jpg
    I like this one: https://whywomenreadromance.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/krouthen-three-reading-women-1908.jpg

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    1. You’re right, Naomi — there’s a certain physical awkwardness to some of the images (like poor Caterina’s right arm). I quite like the three you found, especially the first one — she’s got her feet up and a whole tea set at the ready 🙂 The fishing one is more abstract than I usually go for, yet I like the composition and the colors. In all three the women look very at ease.

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  2. In the national gallery there is a sculpture of a woman reading that I have always loved. I don’t know anything about the artist, or even the name of the price, though.

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