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Reading Women in Fine Arts

Investigative observation about reading women or reading girls in fine arts.

The subject of reading women in fine arts has not received much attention in fine arts up to now. The subject was treated occasionally during other investigations.
To investigate this topic touching many questions of cultural, art historical, historical and especially women specific issues - I would like to open a Forum of Communication for the scientific treatment of the subject and for the mutual exchange of information.

To begin, a review of the subject in existing visual art is of importance, independent of time, geographical or cultural boundaries. All epochs, styles, cultural circumstances shall be considered. The collection of these materials will enable investigations with more detailed questions.

All images of reading women and girls known to me are entered into a directory. This includes also female writers. The list will be up-dated with newly available information and expanded for the inclusion of new works. Constructive critique is welcome.

The layout of this directory allows expansions and corrections, including the author of such additions. For further communication the email address of the sender should be included. Comments will be made available for discussion.

Furthermore, there will be future essays featuring individual works, comparisons of paintings, remarks, references and thoughts with respect to the topic, whenever they become available. Hopefully, they shall initiate discussions and enhance communication, creating new ideas which open a new perspective.

Curiosity is the mother of all beginnings, eh?

At the begin of 2002, I came across some postcards depicting reading women. I was fascinated! They showed reproductions of paintings by famous and not so well known artists (or at least until then unknown). The artwork showed women reading.
Even if the depicted women where not obviously reading, they either had a book or a letter in their hand. The paintings reproduced showed women or girls from various epochs and in different situations.
My curiosity was awakened. I began to show an interest to find out if there may have been other examples in visual art showing women or girls reading. Some paintings by the American artist Mary Cassatt came to mind, and of course, paintings by Renoir or the famous "Letter writer" by Ter Boch. I remembered having seen other such paintings.

Well, why actually did these images start my interest, why did they draw my attention to such an extent? It was this book that tipped the scale. It kept me fascinated. This book of paintings opened a world of questions for me: Why, how so, when, how, from whom…
My enthusiasm for this topic transfered into my artistic work and lead to my paintings "Die lesende Frau" (The reading woman). They were executed as "homage’s" in fabric (fabric collages).These images are also available in a multiple book format "Die lesende Frau, Reading Woman".
Besides my enhanced interest for Reading Women, I started a collection of notes which grew over time into a large reference resource of paintings with this subject. I became aware that such a collection could grow without any limits. That is when I decided to ask for the participation and support of others to create a base of material coming out of a lively communication; this could be the beginning to detailed research in this area. At the same time an exchange about the sources could envision the research itself and the inclusion of partial or peripheral areas to this field.

Questions and more questions.

I started out with a "wild" collection of illustrations of reading women to create a base for my artistic work. A systematic recording of such information was not intended.
However, more questions arose. It seemed as if these reading women kept questioning me, and so I began to ask questions in return.


I noticed very quickly that I had come across a very expansive field that had not been given the extend of importance and intensity in research that it deserved, although it was an area of research that triggered great interest whenever it was mentioned.

I showed my preliminary catalog of questions to a number of experts and created such a positive response that I felt encouraged to publish this research topic on the Internet. Now, I am expecting the first responses with great anticipation.

This is a huge subject, probably too big for a single investigator, but definitely not for a team coming from various branches of research. The project could be divided into smaller research groups including specialties such as art historians, scientists in socials studies and artists.

This questionnaire has been placed right here at the beginning. Surely, there will be more questions coming up during the course of this investigation which will require an answer.
  1. How is a reading woman, appearing to be educated and intellectually demanding, situated in visual art?
  2. What are the connections to this subject with respect to religion, myth, history, time documents?
  3. How is the social environment of the reading woman presented? Is she seen reading alone, or in a group in opposition to men? Or is it the other way around, he is reading and she is listening or doing some needle work?
  4. How much independence of the woman can be observed in the picture?
  5. Which function has the book or letter? Does it serve as a symbol? Does the artist on purpose show a glimpse of its contents? Is the artist on purpose or without realizing it making a statement for the viewer?
  6. Has the book or letter a function that goes beyond the artistic composition? Will the artist definitely want to make a statement or does he/she just need a colored spot, in the shape of a book/letter for compositions sake?
  7. Can the reading woman be used as an expression of the "emancipated" meaning of a woman?
  8. How does the visual presentation of a reading woman relate in comparison to Eve, Mary or the odalisques?
  9. How is the reaction of the viewer taken into consideration? Is the topic being used to attract sales or is the notorious nude more inspiring to attract a customer?
  10. Why did artists use this subject, i.e. for portraits? Or did the reading woman become the portrait? What else do women in portraiture keep in their hands (needle work, fan, hat..)?
  11. Are there time periods in art when this theme was the preferred subject?
  12. Can these observations be related to historical back grounds, i.e. emancipation of women?
  13. How is the relationship between male/female artists having used this subject, considering the fact that in earlier epochs almost no female artists existed? Female artists can be found only from the 19th century on, when they were finally granted access to academia in the 20th century. Connection?
  14. Which artists were especially dedicated to this theme? Or, vise-versa, which artists, male/female, avoided this subject and stayed with a more general way of presenting women. Can regional or national differentiations be made?
  15. What do we know about the clients and their intentions? Church, Noblesse, Bourgeoisie? Epochs? Developments?

The Book

The book has been known in all cultures as a symbol of knowledge or of science in general, as "liber mundi" and "liber vitae". The open book can be interpreted as the Book of Life, as "learning" and the Spirit of Knowledge. Often, the "holy book" is the locale of mythical imagination and adoration. Since it is filled with magical powers it is used for sworn testimony by laying hands on it. The apocalyptic book with its seven seals stands for secretive divine knowledge.

A book is considered one of the eight most valuable possessions in Chinese Buddhism. Books (Old and New Testament, Koran) are the basis of the three large monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Muslim. A book is an attribute to Christ, the apostles and some saints, i.e. Saint Catherine (topic of my first essay). In paintings, showing the Annunciation of Mary, the bible is usually included.

Besides the book being a religious symbol, signal and metaphor, the Book of Nature is also a new-platonic example in which nature has found its place.

During the middle ages the bible was considered the book that told the Evolution of Nature.

The book has a long history. Long before Gutenberg invented the printing press the book was closely associated with the cultural and religious tradition of a people. Today DNA, the genome, is used as example to be the Book of Life.

A book is by no means only an object that the artist just places in the hands of his or her model to keep it quiet, although this was exactly the case the way Renoir made use of it. On the other hand, the model may have utilized the time to read while posing. A book, and this is certainly known to all artists, has always been a visual symbol. This, however, depended on the theme of the artwork and was related to the place and time of the painting or sculpture's creation. Is it coincidence or intention if an artist places a book into the hands of a woman, reading, leafing through it or having it in a protective gesture pressed against her chest?

Can we conclude interrelations from a documentary collection of paintings?

Is it sometimes possible to recognize the book that is read? Is the visible book title intentionally displayed? What is our conclusion, if we recognize the title? Can we conclude from the composition which book this may be? Again, questions and more questions.

The Letter

The letter is obviously another form of communication with an author and a receiver.

Differing from a book a more personal relationship exists. Surely, with the portrayal of a writing or reading woman there is an elevation in awakened emotions by the viewer.

My intent is to show this in depth on hand various examples.

translated by Sigi Oberlaender

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