Art in Books; Books in Art

Imagine this is me.
The blogger, at rest.

I’ve mentioned The Goldfinch a few times in this blog. For a book that I didn’t like very much, I can’t seem to stop thinking about it. The book is about (among many, many other things) the events that follow the narrator’s visit to the gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where the book’s namesake, a painting called The Goldfinch, supposedly hung.

The painting that inspired this 800-plus page book is indeed called The Goldfinch, but it did not hang in the Met. Its home is in the Netherlands, but around the time of the release of Tartt’s novel, it was on loan to the Frick Museum as part of a larger exhibit, where throngs of people came to admire it. The small painting probably had more visitors during that space of time than it ever had since Carl Fabrituis created it in 1654.

I’ll give Tartt credit: she chose a relatively obscure book to serve as the centerpiece of a museum of a book, ignoring the temptation of already-famous paintings to which other authors have previously succumbed. Case in point: Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (Tracy Chevalier), which also happened to be part of the same exhibit as The Goldfinch. (Any aspiring author may want to consider the other pieces that were in that exhibit for inspiration.)

Thinking about art in books really is a means to introduce the theme of this post: books in art. (Bet you didn’t see that coming!) Paintings of people reading in paintings are not hard to find. in fact, I found this Pinterest site of people reading in paintings. I need to suggest one more to that collection: Frangonard’s Young Girl Reading. I have a print hanging in my home. (Frangonard is the artist who created The Swing, which is depicted in Frozen, in case you need a better point of reference.) Young Girl Reading, as well as most of the images on the Pinterest site, are portraits, which are a different sort of public-reading. The subject is aware of the fact she or he is being captured on a canvas, and has consented to it. She or he, or the painter, or both, have decided that the book will be part of the portrait. There’s no great story, no mystery behind it. Nobody’s going to make a movie about the portrait of some girl who’s pretending to read a book while sitting for a portrait. In this situation, we don’t even care what the book might be.

But what I was looking for were famous paintings in which readers were depicted in public spaces. And when it comes to people in public spaces, the first thing that comes to mind is George Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, which hangs in the Art Institute in Chicago. This is the painting that every art class uses as an example of Pointillism — tiny little dots up close, but step back, and you have recognizable shapes, people, things.

The Art Institute’s website has the image of the painting available and allows you to zoom in for a closer look at Seurat’s dots. I was looking for any collection of dots that suggested that somebody in the painting was reading a book. I found this lady, seated just behind the lounging fellow:

Seurat's bookish lady
Seurat’s bookish lady

Whatever is in her hands isn’t a book. It looks like fabric on which she’s pretending to do work as she busily ignores both the handsome lout whose thrown himself down to her left, and the well-dressed gentleman who’s settled himself an equal distance to her right. So she’s not reading, but check out the area to her left:


A hint of bookishness
A hint of bookishness

I see two books stacked on top of each other, lying close to her side. Bingo! Now we have a story, we have a mystery. We want to know more. What books would she be willing to bring to the park? Why do the books look identical to each other? Why isn’t she reading either of them?

Let us consider. Clearly, they belong to her, and not to the lout. Next, I can imagine that our lady arrived early to the park, on her own. She must have gotten there first. If either of the men had been there first, she wouldn’t have chosen a spot sandwiched so closely between them — not a woman on her own, unless she’s a woman of ill repute, but I can’t allow that. She has two books with her! She is blameless! So instead she’s there first, and she’s reading, until the gentleman comes along. She hastily puts the books away. Maybe these particular books were inappropriate for a lady; or maybe she didn’t want the gentleman to see her doing anything as intellectual as reading a book; whatever the reason, the books are tucked out of his sight.

She doesn’t care so much, on the other hand, about the good opinion of the man on her left. He looks out of place there, a working-class guy among the gentry who are trying to preserve this prim and proper park for the “right sort” of people. But he doesn’t care what they think. He’s there for a break from his work day at the docks, and picked the spot near this woman, perhaps to intentionally make her uncomfortable; or to frustrate her silent, passive flirtation with the gentleman; or maybe he plopped down near her so he could check out her books.

Or maybe, as a result of her books, he recognized a person as out of place as he was in this setting. Nobody else at La Grande Jatte is reading. One comes to La Grande Jatte to see and be seen in this world, not to get lost in an imaginary one. Seurat has already created this imaginary world, and his characters are all examining things in his world, not in any other. This includes the bookish lady. Still, she is a suggestion, a hint, that an artist cannot control all of his subjects, that he cannot posses them completely, that he could lose her to some other story not of his own imagination.

I tried to call up other famous paintings of large groups of people at public events, and kept turning to Edouard Manet: Music in the Tuileries Gardens, Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette. His characters are always partying, and a person quietly reading in the middle of a big party would have been a topic for discussion indeed. But I was on the right track: I found his Woman Reading. According to one text, it is thought that the woman may be spending her afternoon with an illustrated journal at an outdoor brasserie. Although she’s dressed as though she’s out in public, no one else is depicted in the painting, giving it more of a feel of a portrait. Close, but not really what I was looking for.

Otherwise, my less-than-scientific and less-than-comprehensive survey came up empty. (I’m going to ignore medieval and Renaissance paintings where saints are reading the Bible or prayerbooks in highly staged and unlikely scenes.)  As far as I can tell, painters creating scenes of people in public don’t want to depict their subjects doing anything as distracting as reading a book. The artists jealously make sure that everybody in their paintings is appreciating what is in the painting.

Fair enough.  After all, I just made you read a lengthy blog post about my imagination, when you could be enjoying a good book.

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