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Books Do Furnish a Painting: a Photo Essay

Posted on 06 Sep 2018

What links Stalin and the artist Rosso Fiorentino? What was Gauguin hinting at when he painted a copy of Milton’s 'Paradise Lost' into a portrait? Is it true that no one ever saw Picasso with a book in his hand?

Books and art are intertwined as objects of beauty, knowledge and status. It’s no wonder then, that thousands of fine paintings include books in their subject matter.

This beautifully illustrated appraisal explores the representation of books in more than 150 artworks, examining how artists across Europe and America from the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries have depicted books and why.

Read on to discover authors Jamie Camplin’s and Maria Ranauro’s exclusive insight into some of their favourite pictures from the book.

WAS THERE EVER such an alluringly enigmatic expression of face, eyes and hands? In Antonello da Messina’s painting (c. 1476), the Archangel Gabriel has just brought news to the Virgin that she is to be the mother of Christ, a startling interruption of her reading of her Book of Hours or Bible.

DEMURELY COQUETTISH, alluringly shy young women with a book were a familiar subject for the 18th-century portraitist. The Verona-born Pietro Rotari (1707–1762), who was influenced by Jean-Etienne Liotard when he went to Vienna in the 1750s and saw his work, painted many such girls, sometimes just revealing the pursed lips behind the book and – in at least one case – leaving only the eyes to encourage intimacy. We have come a long way from the reserved elegance of Bronzino’s Portrait of a Young Girl with a Book
. Rotari was popular in the courts of Dresden, St Petersburg and Vienna; Mary Farquhar, one of a number of well-educated women who wrote about art during the 19th century, decided it was a case of charm and ‘the deficiencies of others’, rather than his own ‘absolute virtues’.

DURING THE RENAISSANCE the book carried the authority both of the Church and of a more secular world to come. On the one hand, humanism pushed the pagan classical world to the centre of education; on the other, this painting (c. 1538) by Ludger tom Ring the Elder, anachronistically depicting Virgil with eyeglasses and a bound book, showed the Church harnessing pre-Christian figures for its own purposes: St Augustine and other early Christian Fathers associated Virgil’s Eclogue 4 (c. 40 BCE) with a prophecy of Christ’s birth. Either way, the sovereignty of the book as the endorsed source of knowledge was reinforced.

THERE ARE AT LEAST THREE extant versions of Chardin’s The Little Schoolmistress – one each in Dublin, London and Washington DC (the version pictured here) – as well as a further variant engraved for ‘le gros public’ by François- Bernard Lépicié in 1740. They all made the same point, with an exquisite skill that inspired Lucian Freud to make his own painting and etching of the subject well over two and a half centuries later. The young pupil, possibly the child of Chardin’s furniture-dealer and cabinet-maker friend Monsieur Lenoir, and painted with less definition, must aspire to the level of attainment of the young woman, conceivably a sibling. Education and the book were inseparable.

WILLIAM-ADOLPHE BOUGUEREAU, painter of The Story Book (1877), was much derided by the artists of his generation who wanted to move art on. There was even a term, ‘Bouguereauté’, to describe – as the Impressionists saw it – works that shared the deceitful artifice and contrivance of Bouguereau’s style. Gauguin was especially hostile – happy, he said, only when he came across two Bouguereaus in an Arles brothel: the only place they were fit for. Behind the sentimentality of this painting, however, was a sad family tale, for Bouguereau had lost his five-year-old daughter to tuberculosis in 1877, a son had died in 1875, and, in the year of The Story Book, both his wife and his infant son also died.

IN THE LAST YEARS before the First World War, Roger de la Fresnaye would meet in the Paris suburb of Puteaux with other artists, as well as poets and critics – the origin of the Salon de la Section d’Or, the most important Cubist exhibition before the war. This aristocratic son of a French army officer was hardly expressing a female view of matrimony in his 1912 painting Married Life, but the books intrude humanity in to a very modern image.

ARCIMOBOLDO’S The Librarian (1560s; above) is thought to be a portrait of the humanist Wolfgang Lazius, who – like the artist himself – was attached to the Habsburg court of Emperor Maximilian II. Some have
 seen it as a satire on the world of books, but this was also the era of the Swiss scholar Conrad Gessner, whose four-volume Bibliotheca universalis (1545–49) recorded the rise of the book by attempting a universal catalogue of everything that had been produced in the first century of printing.

Books Do Furnish a Painting

Jamie Camplin, Maria Ranauro