Readers According to Eight Artists

Embark on a captivating journey through mesmerizing artworks that bring the magic of reading to life. From the eager anticipation in Utagawa Kuniyoshi's piece to the thought-provoking commentary by Kerry James Marshall, each painting reveals how literature can transform us across different cultures and time periods.

Reading is an activity that allows us to imagine lives different from our own. It can transport us to entirely different worlds and points in time. Like movies and TV shows, this solitary activity can also give us the chance to enter another person's mind and understand their world. Since time immemorial, artists, whose creative endeavors parallel those of writers, have captured this private, magical, and sacred activity in their artworks. 

1. Landscapes and Beauties: Feeling Like Reading the Next Volume by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (19th Century)

In this ukiyo-e style woodblock print, Japanese artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi from the Edo period depicts the sheer excitement and anticipation of a woman wanting to read the next volume while holding another book she’s just been reading. The framed image on the wall shows whitebait fishing at Nishinomiya of Settsu, the present-day Hyogo prefecture. 

Landscapes and Beauties: Feeling Like Reading the Next Volume by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (19th Century)
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The image comes from the book Sankai meisan zue, or Book of Specialties from Land and Sea, illustrated by Shitomi Kangetsu. The print captures the woman’s rich inner reading life and her pure joy knowing that she has all the time in the world for reading. 

2. The Bookworm by Carl Spitzweg (1850)

The artist Carl Spitzweg called the painting “Librarian,” but the 19th-century viewing public called it “The Bookworm,” a disparaging term for people who are bookish and dreamy. Spitzweg leads us to a rococo-style library where an old man stands at the top of a ladder, reading a book close to his face. An open book is in his right hand. There’s another one tucked under his left arm and another one squeezed in between his knees. 

The Bookworm by Carl Spitzweg (1850)
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The man is reading in the “Metaphysics” section of the library and a ray of light falls on him through a window on the ceiling. This scene alludes to the Age of Enlightenment of the 17th-18th century, an intellectual movement in Western Europe in which thinkers and leaders exchanged ideas on art, religion, humanity, nature, and science that challenged the traditional modes of thinking. 

Despite the movement’s celebration of new kinds of thinking, we see that the man seems to be confused and overwhelmed by all the knowledge in the world. This overwhelming feeling is further emphasized by the towering height of the ladder on which he is standing and the artist’s decision to blur out the lower part of the painting, signifying the endless expanse of the library. 

3. The Bibliophile by Jean Louis Ernest Meissonier (1862)

Meissonier’s oeuvre includes men in historical contexts and subjects such as soldiers, writers, and musicians. His paintings romanticize scenes from history. In this painting,  Meissonier captures a man thinking and writing in a sunlit room. The shelves are filled with books. The man may be a bibliophile, a book collector or a book lover, or a writer in the midst of finishing his manuscript. Meissonier captures the inner torment and the external calm of the man writing.

The Bibliophile by Jean Louis Ernest Meissonier
Photo Credit: Artvee

4. The Fairy Tale by Walter Firle (1900)

German painter Walter Firle is known for depicting his subjects in dramatic lighting and positioning them against a window. In “The Fairy Tale,” Firle shows three girls engrossed in a fairy tale book too large for them. The painting accurately captures the sustained interest and concentration emanating from the eyes of the three girls, which is refreshing to see.

The Fairy Tale by Walter Firle (1900)
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

5. Boy Reading Adventure Story by Norman Rockwell (1923)

Normal Rockwell was an American painter and illustrator known for depicting relatable scenes of American life, culture, and history. “Boy Reading Adventure Story” shows a young adult immersed in a book, sitting next to a black labrador and a pile of books. Rockwell captures how a story comes alive for the young man as he reads the story and imagines himself to be the hero in shining armor, riding a horse with the princess he has rescued. The artwork is currently in the collection of the filmmaker George Lucas, best known for creating Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises.

Boy Reading Adventure Story by Norman Rockwell (1923)
Photo Credit: Wikiart

6. The Library by Jacob Lawrence (1960)

Jacob Lawrence notes that black culture was not formally studied as a serious subject, so he had to educate himself by visiting libraries and museums. “The Library” may refer to the 135th Street Library, now known as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which houses the first significant collection of African American literature, history, and prints in the US. In “The Library,” the center is filled with people busy reading their books. 

The Library by Jacob Lawrence
Photo Credit: Smithsonian American Art Museum

7. The Reader by William Tolliver

The Mississippi native William Tolliver’s love for reading is evident in his work “The Reader.” A self-taught artist, Tolliver paints his African American subjects with pride and dignity to “bring to the forefront the seriousness of art as a person’s heritage,” as he once said. Growing up, his mother borrowed books from the library that would help him learn how to make art. “The Reader” shows us the discipline and the commitment it takes to learn outside the four corners of the classroom.

The Reader by William Tolliver
Photo Credit: Zigler Art Museum

8. SOB, SOB by Kerry James Marshall (2003)

The painting shows a black woman sitting on the floor by a shelf filled with prominent Black writers and books on Africa and the African diaspora. Thought bubbles “SOB…SOB…” might refer to the tragic realization that Black culture is excluded in art history and art museums, which Marshall aims to shed light on through his work. In this painting, the reader is catapulted into a sad reality that her heritage has been excluded from the mainstream narratives.

SOB, SOB by Kerry James Marshall
Photo Credit: Smithsonian American Art Museum

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