Imagining the Thoughts of Women Readers in Paintings

The Reader (screenshot by the author)
The website for The Reader, designed by Oliver Wise (screenshot via the Kadist Art Foundation by the author for Hyperallergic)

One recurring image in the paintings of Western art history is that of a woman sitting in solitude, seemingly lost in the pages of a book. The titles or texts of the tomes — accessories to the portraits — usually exist as just representational painted lines; the sitters themselves are often unidentified. The Reader, an ongoing online project by the Kadist Art Foundation literally gives voice to these subjects, inviting contemporary female artists to imagine narratives to accompany these historical artworks. The texts are presented as recordings available on the project’s website, which launched in May. Curated by Kadist’s founding director Joseph del Pesco and organized in collaboration with artist Enar de Dios Rodriguez, it now features four readings that bring the suggestive, visual scenes to life, with the fifth and final contribution forthcoming.

Pieter Janssens Elinga, "Reading Woman" (1650) (photo via Wikipedia) (click to enlarge)
Pieter Janssens Elinga, “Reading Woman” (1650) (photo via Wikipedia) (click to enlarge)

The organizers had asked the invited artists to “engage in a provocative intermingling of fiction and museological record,” and the results are diverse, drawing inspiration from the writers’ own personal backgrounds to historic texts. The New York City-based sound artist Christine Sun Kim wrote a stream-of-consciousness narrative that imagines the woman by a bookshelf in Harold Knight’s “The Reader” (1910) perusing a title as a way to while away time before an unspecified engagement. Born with a hearing loss, Kim also attached a transcript to the work; the document includes parenthetical asides of short descriptions that stimulate the senses, crafting an immersive scene that extends far beyond Knight’s two-dimensional world. “i smell corned beef with garlic (invisible thick fog),” Kim’s contribution begins. “i hear water boiling and metal clinks coming from kitchen (pencil smears and marks). i curl my feet inside my heels. (slow wet squeak). i smell my own wine breath (heat emits from mouth/nose/ears).”

Other writers include the Paris-based Marcelline Delbecq, who gives voice to Albert Bartholomé’s 1883 “The Artist’s Wife Reading,” taking the sitter’s name, “Périe” as the inspiration for a fictional work that Delbecq herself recites in French. Then there’s Mexican artist Adriana Lara, who chose an excerpt from the Marquis de Sade’s “Philosophy in the Bedroom” to pair with Arthur George Walker’s “Two Girls Reading” — suggesting the playful scenario of an older sister reciting the play’s lewd contents to her sibling. The Cairo-based Malak Helmy provides the fourth work, which accompanies a 1650 painting by Pieter Janssens Elinga, and the fifth will be by Puerto Rican filmmaker Beatriz Santiago Muñoz.

The Reader also brings together many additional paintings of female bookworms its organizers culled from museum collections, and the curated selection highlights some interesting trends. As Kadist notes, most of these paintings date to the 19th century, a period of increased literacy rates and the rise of the popular novel. Such depictions of women reading exist as visual records of the changing social fabric, nodding to the greater access to education women gradually received.

It’s also worth pointing out that aside from the occasional works such as Bartholomé’s painting, most of the images have titles that are variations on “Woman Reading” or “The Reader.” Such nondescript labels emphasize the sheer number of now-untraceable women in art history who modeled for (mostly male) artists, which makes a project that invigorates these sitters like The Reader more open to creative expression, but more significantly, also much-needed.

The titles of paintings, as seen on The Reader (screenshot by the author)
The titles of art history paintings, as seen on The Reader (screenshot by the author)
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