The Reader 1770-72
If collective reading of a novel carried risks, what might be the effect of novel reading upon a solitary woman reader? We can approach this question by looking at what two major French painters of the mid 18th century do with the topic of the woman alone with her novel. Fragonard’s painting, "The Reader," (figure 9; 1769-72) does not invest the figure with a specific legible meaning. The painting is one of fourteen paintings art historians call "Figures de Fantaisie," all men and women in half-length portraits of the same dimension, apparently executed very quickly, and dressed in what were known as Spanish costumes...with "expressions lively, their eyes turned away...as if they have been frozen in the middle of an action." (Jean-Pierre Cuzin, 102) Norman Bryson has explained the effect of these paintings of Fragonard's in terms that are useful to understanding the absorptive power of novel reading, especially of the vivid "hallucination" of experiencing Richardson's characters as though they were real persons.(104) To know a character in a novel or the woman in this painting as an "ideal presence, half transmitted by the artwork" requires "for its full existence the imaginative participation of reader or viewer"(Bryson, 104). There are several ways "The Reader" teases its viewer into interpretation: the painting is incomplete (for example in the drawing of the left hand) but the brush-strokes are richly evocative; the blankness of the background withholds any context for this figure; and, and finally, the brilliant foreground lighting of the Reader’s gold and white Spanish costume gives this pretty young woman an oddly extravagant aura. She seems to be posed for our gaze, but she looks away. The delicate balance of book, hand and head as seen in profile, and the ease of her body resting against cushion and arm rail, communicates the graceful self-completeness of the solitary reader. Some art historians suppose that "The Reader" is the portrait of an actual young woman (Curzin, 123-125), "The Reader" remains enveloped in mystery, as illusive as the thoughts and feelings of another person's reading. In this painting, reading achieves an allegorical generality.