It's easy to take books for granted, as well as our ability to read and comprehend them. Perhaps some of us are all too familiar with skimming a handful of pages or chapters before having to divert our attention elsewhere, while others are gifted with having too much to read, wondering how and when they will ever reach the end of their reading lists.
Today, access to education varies immeasurably depending on one's class, nationality, or even religious background. For women throughout history – and still, for millions of women today – access to literature through education was often denied.
For those wealthy families who could afford to educate their daughters, it was often regarded as an essential skill for marriage, rather than providing them with the freedom to make their own vocational choices. Some considered women's education to be a waste of time, or even, immoral. It was believed that reading could harm or corrupt a woman's mind by presenting her with radically new – and potentially dangerous – ideas. In more extreme cases, it was believed that if a woman possessed too much knowledge, it could contribute to her infertility.
Perhaps society at large was afraid of the stories that women might tell, if given the skills and literacy to do so (after all, we are all familiar with the saying 'knowledge is power'). Reading unlocks not only a world of fantasy and imagination, but independent thinking and new understandings of our surroundings and ourselves, all of which arguably helps us to progress and move forward as a society.
The act of reading, especially reading that is done by a woman, is a very common subject matter throughout art history, despite the paucity of women's education throughout the centuries. What we may typically consider to be quite a tame and subdued scene to witness may, in fact, be anything but.
As James Conlon points out, in Men Reading Women Reading: Interpreting Images of Women Readers, this subject matter was especially intriguing, and even threatening to the male painter or spectator, because of the potential power, freedom, and privacy that the act of reading possesses.
He writes: 'In patriarchal culture, then, the woman reading — any woman genuinely engaged in a text — can only be threatening to men. The book takes her out of the conventional world of male dominance and places her in a textual world where pleasure and wisdom are, literally, in her own hands.'
Let's take a trip through art history to visit some artworks that depicted these quiet yet complex scenes, and the pensive women who inspired them.
To explore the history of the reading woman, we must start with Christine de Pizan (1364–1430), one of the earliest feminist writers who is often considered to be the first woman to choose writing as her profession. Pizan's work brought to light issues of women's oppression, lack of education, and the misogyny she witnessed within society.
She is quoted as stating 'Ah, child and youth, if you knew the bliss which resides in the taste of knowledge, and the evil and ugliness that lies in ignorance, how well you are advised to not complain of the pain and labor of learning'.
Pizan's upbringing was uncommon; she was raised with an education and surrounded by books, rewarding her with the wisdom to observe her own life and illuminate others about the oppression of women. In the British Museum collection exists the largest manuscript of her works, produced under Pizan's direct supervision and dedicated to Isabeau of Bavaria, queen consort of Charles VI of France. The illustration shows the opening of Cent Ballades d'Amant et de Dame (100 ballads of the lover and the lady), illustrated with a picture of Christine writing in her study.
In Magdalen Reading (c.1500–1520) by Piero de Cosimo, the closer we look, the more details come to the surface: the pearls threaded through her long curled hair, the faint halo above her head, and the jar to her left, a reference to the ointment Mary Magdalen used to anoint Jesus' feet. The asymmetry of the colourful, draped fabrics are so pleasantly balanced with the black and red blocks of paint behind her, beyond which lies a hazy blue sky and a field of flowers. She holds her Bible with a firm grip and seems to be tenderly turning a page.
Di Cosimo was a well-respected Florentine Renaissance painter born in 1462 who is known for his eclectic paintings of both mythological and religious subjects, and his marriage of natural and imagined scenes. He was revered by Georgio Vasari for his peculiarities and even included him in the second edition of his famous Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects.
As reflected by di Cosimo's painting, religion was instrumental in the early modern literacy movement. While the early church often preached against the higher education of women, many nuns were literate, and often spoke about how their readings allowed them to encounter the divine. As their stories were disseminated, reading became associated with sublime and other-worldly, exciting experiences, making literacy even more desirable. The Bible was one of the first books that was widely printed after Johannes Gutenberg, the German inventor, created a printing process from moveable type, allowing books to be more accessible and affordable.
Martin Luther, the German theologian and religious reformer who spurred the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation proclaimed that every believer must read and interpret the Bible for themselves, as opposed to relying on the mass interpretation of a priest. Luther framed reading as essential to spiritual transformation and created a compelling case for universal literacy. Luther fought for the Bible to be translated from the exclusive Latin and Greek into many accessible languages, and was adamant about empowering both women and children to read.
By the modern era, with the arrival of the print and reading 'revolution' through new technologies, the activity of reading was no longer reserved for a predominantly male and elite group. Readership became increasingly feminized alongside the rise of more women authors, from George Eliot to Jane Austen in the nineteenth century, as well as more painterly depictions of women engrossed in the act of reading.
However, the conflation of immorality and a reading woman persisted. In 1886, Théodore Roussel debuted his painting, The Reading Girl (1886–1887), a large nude that stirred mixed reviews from the public, possibly to do with her nakedness combined with the activity of reading. One damning review read, 'it is Realism of the worst kind: The eye of the artist sees only the vulgar appearance of his model, making it blunt and crude…'
The painting is certainly striking, as the only other elements in the painting besides herself and her book is a boldly patterned, gently draped kimono on the back of her chair, often speculated to represent Roussel's fondness of Japanese art. The positioning of her neck suggests her unwavering concentration on the words of the author, taking her on a wild journey. The story's plot, details and interpretation are not for the viewer; they are distinctly hers.
There is an obvious tension in this painting, in the way it ascribes such a commonly degraded subject, the female nude, with something that it is so often hidden or denied: a desire of her own. Though she is unclothed, she is not merely subject to the viewer's gaze, for her own desires have become actualised. Her book becomes a tool with which she asserts her presence as not just a sight to be seen, but a force to be reckoned with.
In The Convalescent (1918–1919) by Gwen John, we witness a similar, quiet moment, but in this painting there seems to be less of a barrier between the artist and sitter. A Welsh artist, John often depicted interior settings, still lives, and female sitters, many of which were depicted absorbed in the act of reading.
While John's career has often been eclipsed by her brother, Augustus John, as well as her relationship with French sculptor Auguste Rodin, her work possesses a palpable intimacy that is hard to find in portraits by male artists, which hints at a unique relationship between the female artist and subject. Her fresco-esque techniques, combined with her restricted, solemn palette, produce such raw and honest scenes.
Through John's work, we see beyond the performative nature of femininity, and gain a glimpse into their real, private lives. The woman is calmly gazing at the book in her hands. She is so still that she almost dissipates into her surroundings – her white armchair, stone-coloured wall, and a pink teacup so bright that it threatens to steal the scene. This model is believed to appear in dozens of John's works, although we don't know who she is. While John's portraits are modest, they are poignant – the power generated by such a simple portrait emanates from John's deep affiliation with and understanding of her female sitters.
Albert Reuss' painting Woman Reading (1943) also captures reading as an inherently private and reclusive act. Reuss, an Austrian-born British painter and sculptor, described his later works as 'works of loneliness', mirroring the hardships he encountered after fleeing Austria for Britain in 1938 following the Anschluss and losing loved ones in the process.
In this melancholic work, the subject is almost engulfed by an overwhelming brown abyss. The figure is turned away from the viewer, suggesting that she wants to remain anonymous. From what we can see, she has been painted without facial features, further suggesting the cloistered nature of the moment. Reuss returned to the subject of a woman reading in other works, such as Lady Reading a Book in Laing Art Gallery.
It is easy to forget that reading has not always been an inalienable right, but it took hundreds of years of progress for women to gain the privilege (with many women today still without access to books and education).
Let us no longer interpret historic depictions of women reading as peaceful, mundane scenes, but as glimpses into treasured, private moments, in which ideas and the imagination were allowed to roam freely.
Gianna Scavo, freelance writer