Pictures of readers

What do we see in Albert Bartholomé’s pastel and charcoal ‘The Artist’s Wife Reading’ (1883)? Here is Périe Bartholomé, reclining in a scene of comfortable and affluent domesticity: chaise longue, book, flowers, jewelled rings, gilt-framed mirror, the shelf of other volumes suggesting a process of reading that could go on and on. This is part portrait, part still-life. Périe – youthful and beautiful, here – died four years later, aged 38. Bartholomé renounced painting and dedicated the next two years to sculpting Périe’s tomb at Bouillant cemetery, near Crépy-en-Valois – the first mournful step in an ultimately highly successful late sculptural career, encouraged by his friend Degas. With this hindsight – with death just around the corner – we probably pause over Périe’s black dress and gloves, and her recumbent, proleptically tomb-like pose; the mirror and flowers quietly suggest a vanitas tradition that warns us that all earthly things will pass.

What absorbs Périe in the living present is reading – the white square of a book is the gravitational centre of the composition – and the picture conveys, in its mixture of stasis and carrying away, the sense of Périe’s mind transported: the place of reading, here, is less a comfortable domestic interior but some other site entirely, unreachable to us. What does her mind’s eye see? Where is she? What is both central and also curiously easy to miss is precisely the illegibility of the page, striking (once we clock it) in a scene of carefully rendered realism. What enthrals Périe appears to us as something like redacted text, or a mocked-up book, or a series of pastel brown lines that refuse to signify, or that signify something other than words on a page.

Why can’t we read what Périe can read? Why, in so many paintings of readers, is reading conveyed by an unreadable page? Think Renoir’s portrait of Monet (1872), pipe in hand and absorbed in a book with text suggested only by a darker central square.

Or Egon Schiele’s portrait of industrialist and book collector Hugo Koller, the pages bearing something that may be text or image or a hybrid of the two (1918); or Fragonard’s ‘Young Girl Reading’ (ca. 1769); or Tamara de Lempicka’s ‘Kizette in Pink’ (1927).

In his brilliant The Look of Reading: Book, Painting, Text (2006), Garrett Stewart suggests that illegible pages testify to the book’s ‘unpicturable receipt by the reader’s visible figure’: the block of darkened space standing in for, and, crucially, standing in the way of our comprehending, the experience of someone else taking in words. By the time Albert Bartholomé was painting, immersive reading was the sign of deep human subjectivity: it marked us out, in an age of industrialisation, as thinking, feeling subjects. Périe’s inner life is guaranteed by the illegibility of her text, and what Stewart calls the ‘recessional structure’ of paintings of readers (we look at someone looking at a book) locks us out to preserve this depth. Of course to observe someone else reading – in real life, or in a painting – is often a pleasing and comforting sight. But to watch the reclining Périe Bartholomé read is also – to borrow the words of Jeff Dolven and Sean Keilen in a 2010 essay on Shakespeare’s reading – ‘to be forcefully reminded of everything we cannot know about another mind.’