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Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, “The Vicomtesse de Vaudreuil” (1785) Oil on panel; 83.2 x 64.8 cm (32 3/4 x 25 1/2 in.)

Johannes Vermeer had a serious thing for books.

As it turns out, so did Edward Hopper, Egon Schiele, Ada Thilén, Susan Ricker Knox, Diego Velazquez, Edgar Degas, Marc Chagall, Elizabeth Shippen Green, Mary Cassatt, and M.C. Escher — all of whom found innovative and provocative ways to put books and people reading books into their art. For centuries, books and reading have served as visual motifs in every artistic genre, from portraits of courtly elites to still lifes, illustrating the incredible staying power of painting a printed text.

In The Art of Reading: An Illustrated History of Books in Paint (Getty Publications, 2018), authors Jamie Camplin and Maria Ranauro unpack the complex, ever-evolving relationship between artists, their subjects, and their books through more than 150 Western paintings from the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries. Selected pieces range from an Albrecht Dürer woodcut illustrating The Ship of Fools (a set of satirical verses published in Germany in 1494) to Winslow Homer’s watercolor “The New Novel” (1877), picturing a girl in an orange dress reading in a patch of grass.

“The footprint of books is everywhere in history, and their visual depiction is — quietly but insistently — everywhere in art,” Camplin and Ranaura write in the preface. The history of books and the history of art, Camplin and Ranauro suggest, are inextricably intertwined.

Winslow Homer, “The New Novel” (1877) (image via Wikimedia Commons)

As an object and artifact, “the book” has been invented and reinvented myriad times. From Roman scrolls to cuneiform tablets in the ancient city of Ebla, from the chained bookshelves of medieval Europe to literature that stocked the shelves of nineteenth-century “lady novelists,” books — as material objects — are the sum of hundreds of decisions. Some of these choices represent big shifts in the technology of making books like Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press and use of moveable type, for example. Some of these decisions are small, such as what books a reader decides to collect and why.  But all of the decisions reflect their respective historical contexts. Artists have simply captured those moments, offering a window into how people have read books throughout history.

At the heart of all of Camplin and Ranaruro’s selected paintings is a story of looking at looking. In all of the featured works, the viewer’s gaze is directed to how the subject is looking at their book. In Homer’s The New Novel, for example, the girl is propped up on her right side, laying on dandelion-covered grass; her eyelids look closed, but we understand that she is simply absorbed in her novel.  In Dürer’s woodcut, a jester-scribe is surrounded by dozens of books; he reads one of them, using comically oversized spectacles. Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun’s 1785 portrait of Vicomtesse de Vaudreuil shows the vicomtesse using her thumb to keep her place in the middle of a book. A life-sized 1756 portrait by François Boucher pictures Madame de Pompadour reading in her salon, surrounded by shelves and shelves of books, presenting her as an active intellectual and not simply Louis XV’s mistress. From Vermeer to Escher and dozens of artists in between, Camplin and Ranauro show that there are many ways to view people reading.

François Bouche, “Madame de Pompadour” (1721-1764) (image via Wikimedia Commons)

The tension and focus of all of the the pieces hinge on the question of gaze, who holds it, and how. Is the subject actively reading a book?  Is the gaze interrupted and the book is simply open? Are books simply props — like flowers and skulls — to remind viewers that knowledge, like earthly existence, is transitory and disrupted by death? Or is the book a celebration of education and escapism? A window into how the painted subjects transported themselves into other worlds? Are the readers reading in public? Private? How do we observe what the artists’ subjects are looking at?

There’s an obvious meta element to the act of looking at a book about paintings of people looking at books. It suggests an infinite regress of sorts, and illustrates how a painting of a person reading can prompt a meditation on the so-called problem of other minds: we’re pushed to contemplate the subject’s interiority, to imagine their imaginings as they read. As viewers, we look at the subjects in the selected art look at their books and in each and every painting the gaze is different.

Although there is no shortage of books about books, The Art of Reading offers a welcome new perspective on the age-old tradition of reader as artist’s muse.

The Art of Reading: An Illustrated History of Books in Paint is available from Getty Publications for $22. 

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Lydia Pyne

Lydia Pyne is a writer and historian in Austin, TX, interested in the history of science and material culture. She is the author of Bookshelf (Bloomsbury 2016), Seven Skeletons: The Evolution of the World’s...