Saturday, May 10, 2014

Women Reading ... in Art





In honor of my late mother, my commemoration of Mother's Day will be a reflection on a curious artistic motif: Women Reading.
I stumbled on this recently, while surveying art (a thing which I enjoy). And I realized, the motif is quite old.
The Virgin Mary is frequently depicted in iconography as reading a book. She is traditionally reading when the Angel Gabriel comes to her at the Annunciation.
Now, to be sure, there certainly are examples in art of males reading. But if you survey this genre it becomes very clear that the vast majority of people depicted as reading in art are women. And I began to wonder why this motif is so ubiquitous.


You know a motif is significant when there are sizable Pinterest Boards dedicated solely to it. Survey, for instance the following:

Art - Women Reading
Women Readers
Biblio Beauties
Las Mujeres que leen


One may here counter that women reading in art is so common simply because
A) reading is a common activity and B) women are overall depicted in art significantly more than men. (For the simple fact that they're gorgeous!) Put those things together and maybe there's nothing terribly special or unexpected about a lot of artists producing paintings of women while they read.


But that explanation doesn't satisfy me. 
There are plenty of common activities which don't constitute significant artistic motifs. Women traditionally prepared food in a household (I actually do most of the cooking in mine). But there aren't nearly as many "women making dinner" paintings as there are of women reading. Something else is going on. 


As I studied the matter by looking at multiple examples of the genre, I noticed that the impetus of using "a woman reading" as an artistic subject seems to be the very fact that a woman reading is focused on something. In the vast majority of these art works, the woman is, of course, focused on the book. But I found it utterly fascinating that sometimes, while she has a book, she is focused on something else in the painting. 
Women reading, by Mary Cassat

Even if female artists have painted in this genre, it remains true that most of the artists who established this motif were men. And I will here propose that the choice of the "women reading" as a subject of art by men is ultimately about boys always and forever craving their mother's attention and approval. 


If you survey these paintings, you see women--strong, confident, frequently beautiful, and rarely focused on me, the viewer, at all. The artists who popularized this motif were subconsciously expressing the angst that the very young person has that the most central person in their world, their mother, is sometimes turned away from them.

The show Family Guy depicts this brilliantly and hilariously in a scene where the baby Stewie is trying to get his mother's attention.


 
And the many artists in the "woman reading" genre are subconsciously expressing the same angst.

Which brings me back to my mother. She also was a reader. My mother raised five children
within some limited means. But she made a significant purchase when we were all young. She bought a set of the World Book Encyclopedia. And she encouraged us all to read them and learn everything we could. And it opened up the world to us! I didn't even really want to go to college. But she insisted, even forged my signature on the application and sent it in when I had procrastinated the process. I would eventually get a PhD.


My mother, far right, with her siblings.


And never did I doubt her love and attention for a moment.

Happy Mother's Day, Mom. Pray for me, as I pray for you. I love you always.

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