Sarah Purser The Afternoon Read
Annunciation scenes, in early Christian art, frequently showed the about-to-be-surprised teenager, the Virgin Mary, reading a book. It lent the image gravitas. Experts say she’s reading Old Testament prophecies.
When the Marquise de Pompadour, one time mistress of King Louis XV, had her portrait painted – numerous times – by François Boucher, she asked that she be shown with book in hand. And Eve Arnold’s 1955 photograph of Marilyn Monroe, in a swimsuit reading Ulysses in a playground on Long Island, says Monroe was no dumb blonde.
Seated, silent readers in art, especially in Irish Art, fascinate Tricia Cusack. In her just published book The Reading Figure in Irish Art in the Long Nineteenth Century she explores how portraits “often contained accessories that were deemed appropriate for the subject, such as a fan or flowers for women, a quill or gun for men”.
However, what interests her most was how in the 19th and early 20th centuries “in Ireland and elsewhere, a book was an increasingly common accompaniment, especially in portraits of woman”.
The rise of the novel allowed middle and upper-class women to engage with “a new range of imaginative and intellectual reading material”, says Cusack, and “visual images of women as serious readers contradicted common constructions of women as consumers of lightweight romances”.
Cusack’s study examines portraits of men and women reading and features work by Sarah Cecilia Harrison, John Lavery, Katherine McCausland, William Orpen, Roderic O’Conor, Estella Solomons, Maria Spilsbury, Patrick Tuohy, John Butler Yeats and this painting, The Afternoon Read, by Sarah Purser.
Cusack argues that this Purser painting highlights “greater independence and better educational opportunities for women”, that this sitter is “literate, focused and reflective”, that the “The” in the title “suggests a habit”.
The unnamed woman holds a “yellowback” – novels reprinted in yellow paper boards and, as Cusack explains, “initially produced from 1849 for the new railway bookstalls”. Authors included Wilkie Collins, Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope.
Purser’s figure, sitting upright and sideways, is elegantly dressed. In gentle brushstrokes, her white blouse, dark skirt, brown chair, her dark brown hair, the white curtained window on the right and the soft beige wall create harmony.
Against this, the green neck ribbon and the book’s streak of red, picked up again on her fingers and armrest, add dashes of colour. The reader’s eyes are also green and gaze into space with a look that suggests she has paused to think about what she is reading, to pin down, to savour a thought.
Sarah Purser (1848-1943), artist and activist, was born in Kingstown, now Dún Laoghaire. She studied in Paris and when her wealthy businessman father went bankrupt she made her living from painting.
She focused mainly on portraits, including ones of the Gore-Booths, Maud Gonne, Roger Casement and Samuel Ferguson.
Commissions from English aristocrats followed and Purser said: “I never looked back – I went through the British aristocracy like the measles.” Her success allowed her set up and direct An Túr Gloine, which trained Irish artists in stained glass, a position she retired from aged 92.
The Afternoon Read, circa 1915, honours art and intellect and reminds us how reading can take us elsewhere, and deepens our understanding. A century on, everyone is reading – on their phones. The Old Testament? Ulysses?
‘The Reading Figure in Irish Art in the Long Nineteenth Century’ by Tricia Cusack is published by Anthem Press. anthempress.com
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Regional Cultural Centre, Port Road, Letterkenny, until September 3
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