It may come as a surprise that a work of art depicting a woman reading could be controversial in the past. Reading indicated education, and in the Victorian fin de siècle, this conjured up associations with the ‘New Woman’. The New Woman was educated and independent, and a threat to conventional ideals of womanhood. Women were demanding the right to university education, and to be acknowledged as intellectually capable—in other words, equal to men.
When artist Aubrey Beardsley began his career in London in 1892, these issues were being vigorously debated in popular journals and newspapers. His work is supportive of education for women, emphasising the value of books. One such drawing featured on a catalogue cover from ‘A second book of fifty drawings’, 1899. A fashionably dressed woman sits reading at home, with only a cockatoo for company. The domestic interior is conveyed through an economy of line, in a work suitable for reproduction in print. Beardsley was heavily influenced by Whistler, and may have found inspiration for his subject in Whistlers ‘Reading by Lamplight’ 1858, which uses a similar composition. It shows Whistler’s half-sister, reading at night with a cup of coffee. She sits within an aura of light, with the book right up to her face. For working class women, to be caught reading was tantamount to neglect of family responsibilities. For this reason many read in secret, as Whistler’s sister may be doing, pioneering modern notions of privacy and intimacy.
Theodore Roussel was a close friend and pupil of Whistler, and they shared a love of Japanese art. These influences are seen in ‘The Reading Girl’, 1886-7, in the patterned kimono draped over the back of the chair, and the strong horizontals and verticals of the composition. Roussel’s depiction of a reading woman differs from that of Whistler and Beardsley by her nudity. This frank nudity and flattening of form pays tribute to Manet’s Olympia, controversial in its time. Likewise, Roussel’s painting received harsh criticism for its depiction of a nude woman in neither a classical or mythological guise, but an everyday setting, reading a newspaper. More recently, female art historians have interpreted it as a depiction of ‘an intellectual, modern woman who is not sexually available, despite the nudity’. In this way the traditional passive female nude, object of the male gaze, is subverted by the suggestion of education.
These works from the Nineteenth-century can be compared with more recent portrayals of the same subject such as Roy Lichtenstein’s ‘Nude Reading’ 1994. He took his inspiration from an image in the comic book Girls’ Romances, from 1963, in which the girl was fully dressed, accompanied by the caption ‘I had read about love’. Now in the Nineteenth century the women’s novel was viewed as a threat to the husband and head of the family, as it had the potential to excite the passions and stimulate the imagination. Lichtenstein stripped his source image naked, and combined with knowledge of the original caption, it harks back to the same nineteenth-century concerns with novels aimed at young women. Much like the representations of that period, she is pictured in a private setting, fully absorbed in her book. As well as being suggestive of the type of material she may be reading, the nudity of Lichtenstein’s girl relates her to the timeless tradition of the woman reading in art.