By Inés Alberdi. ommentaries on the works written by the departments of Old Master Painting and Modern Painting
Images of women reading or holding a book are very common in European painting from the Renaissance onwards. Books have symbolic connotations of status, knowledge and refinement.
The tour highlights works containing this image and classifies them into three groups: Annunciation scenes, Renaissance portraits, and women reading in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Images of the Annunciation.
The Annunciation is the episode in the life of the Virgin Mary where the archangel Gabriel announces to her that she is going to give birth to Jesus, and she is often depicted holding a book in these scenes. Books are symbols of both elegance and piety. Reading adds a humanistic aspect to the idealisation of Mary as an example of female excellence.
The image of a young girl reading, based on this iconography of the Virgin in the Annunciation, evokes an air of piety and virtuousness, but also of autonomy, of having free time for herself. And by extension it conveys a positive view of education for women. The iconography of the Annunciation is contradictory: the young woman’s words stress her submission and humility, but the presence of the book she holds expresses an idea of intellectual superiority and capacity.
Portraits of ladies with books have a noticeable elegance that is afforded by culture and the huge importance society attaches to knowledge. Only a minority of women received an education, yet there are many portraits of women with books. Books were uncommon and were used as signs of distinction.
Seventeenth-century Dutch portraits of wealthy bourgeois merchants often feature women reading. Books hold a symbolic value because they enhance the sitters’ individual profile with an added intellectual status and the refinement that comes from knowledge.
Women reading in the 19th and 20th Centuries.
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries economic development and urbanisation in the European countries were accompanied by the growth of the middle classes and their culture. Women had much greater access to education and artists portrayed these new, more knowledgeable middle classes. In art this rise in women’s culture and education was reflected in an increase in images of women reading. The subjects of paintings became democratised, and many portraits were painted of middle-class women.
Numerous paintings show women engaged in everyday tasks. One of the activities chosen to represent women’s daily lives was reading. It became relatively fashionable for them to pose reading. Culture became a middle-class value. Education continued to be considered a sign of distinction, and portraits of women with books were a means of conveying this intellectual refinement.