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I have this little project going on on Pinterest which involves collecting as many paintings and illustrations depicting women and girls reading as possible. So far, the board has 998 images (possible a few repeated), and I add to it almost everyday, mostly with the help of sites like Reading and Artthomerama and Women Reading.

I’ve been meaning to post here about my favorites, but as the collection grows it becomes more difficult to choose. With some effort I managed my gather my top 50, which I’m sure would change if I chose them tomorrow. The images below are just a sample chosen at random (really randomly, using a number generator!).

What fascinates me about these paintings is how varied they are. You’ll find little girls and old matrons, mothers and maidens, aristocrats and their cleaning ladies, religious women reading the Bible and women on the beach reading Tropic of Cancer, women enjoying some time alone and others reading in a group or out-loud. Some are seen from a distance, almost spied on, others look into our eyes. Some are serious, others on the verge of a giggle, some bold, others shy. They all make me want to go up to them and start up a conversation about what they’re reading and how they’re find it so far.

One thing is clear: artists from different times and cultures have been fascinated by images of women reading. There’s something very intimate and tranquil about them, or maybe the painters (mostly men) are curious and jealous of this personal time. It fascinates me.

I haven’t been able to find the author of two of them – maybe you can help? Any of your favorites that I missed?

The Rest of my Top 50

“Fellow Readers” on Pinterest
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Missed Connection (2004)
Adrian Tomine (USA, 1974-)

This was the the cover of The New Yorker in November 2004. I love the “comics” feel to it and the serendipity in theme. If it was a movie, they’d sit opposite each other the following week.

Seated Woman
Jules Adolphe Goupil (France, 1839–1883)

This is definitely a pose (her choice or the painters, I wonder?) and she knows she looks great.  My favorite thing about this one is the color arrangement between the pastels and the black background. Gorgeous dress.

A Place of Her Own
James Christensen (USA, 1942-)

What the artist said about it:

“I wanted to create a retreat, a secluded little nook filled with art and books where a woman could really get away from it all. Here, the tension melts away as lilting strains of lute music drift across the overstuffed cushions. The objects in the room represent the things that I believe are important to a full and satisfying life: Rembrandt’s painting ‘Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer’ (culture and the arts); the medieval Unicorn Tapestries (magic and belief); maps (curiosity and exploration); sheet music (music and creativity) and the books, treasures which represent the collected wisdom of the ages. Take a close look at the books – there’s one of my very favorite new books buried in there somewhere!”

Les Muses (1893)
Maurice Denis (France, 1870-1943)

Lovely colors. All nine muses are there, I wonder which one is sharpening her pencil – Calliope of Epic Poetry maybe?

 

 ?
David Hettinger (USA, 1946-)

One of the few in my top-50 without a name. I’ve looked on the artist’s website with no luck. The mother is there but her mind somewhere else. Have the feeling I’ve witnessed many similar scenes. Very summer-ish.

A girl reading a book by the River Rhine
Igor Shin Moromisato (Brazil)

This is one of the most repined and liked images in my collection. It could be me in thousands of similar moments in my life, only replace the Rhine with the Tagus.

Elegant Women in a Library
Edouard Gelhay (France, 1856 – 1939)

Yes, they’re elegant, but that’s not what strikes me the most. They look curious, intent, absorbed.

Girl Reading
Alfred Émile Stevens  (1823-1906)

This is one of my favorites of all. She’s so comfortable, so immersed in her book. Is that a party dress and she’s making time until someone picks her up, or is it a morning/afternoon dress and she was distracted away from her knitting duties?

The Communicant (1900)
Julius Garibaldi Melchers (USA, 1860-1932)

How striking is this one? She’s all cool perfection and statue-like. I was surprised the artist was American because there’s something very Dutch about the whole thing. Have you noticed that the girls’ shape is the opposite of blue holy water holder?

Girl in a Red Dress Reading by a Swimming Pool (1887)
Sir John Lavery (Ireland, 1856-1941)

Everything is blue, but she’s red. Like the one above reading by the Rhine,  I’ve been in this pose countless times.

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(credits: Edmund de Waal)

I finished this book the same way I finished In Cold Blood: thinking I had never read another non-fiction quite like it. You can read it as a family saga or an insightful look at the European history from the late 19th century to the mid-20th. It can also be seen as a personal journey into the world of family heritage and how that influences who you are.

Edmund de Waal is a British ceramicist who inherited 264 netsuke and decides to discover more about how they came down the Ephrussi family line. (He’s now writing a history of the color white – looking forward to it!)

The book is mainly divided into three sections that mark the different stages of the netsuke’s life: the first is set at fin de siècle Paris where a Japanism-obsessed Charles Ephrussi first buys them from an art dealer. The second takes us to early 20th-century Vienna, at the time of its annexation by Hitler, and finally to post-WW2 and bombed-out Tokyo, a place I knew almost nothing about.

I was afraid that amidst all the family history the netsuke would become irrelevant, but they’re cleverly woven into the story. They become a sort of vessel that embodies the zeitgeist of the different times. In Paris they’re a collectors item and objects of art, in Vienna they’re on display in an intimate recess of a golden house, where a Lady dressed to go to parties and meet lovers, but they also become toys to the children allowed to witness that ritual. In Tokyo they are once again in the world they were build for and become a symbol of family history and resilience. I wonder what the future will bring to these intriguing objects.

(favorite Paris anecdote: Monet’s asparagus)

I found de Wall a remarkable writer, one that’s able to bring an artist’s awareness to another format, paying careful attention to the language, its pace and its evocative potential. He often tackles abstract topics, but always in a very accessible way:

You take an object from your pocket and put it down in front of you and you start. You begin to tell a story.

When I hold them I find myself looking for the wear, the fine cracks that run alongside the grain of some of the ivories.  It is not just that I want the split in these wrestlers – a tangle of hopelessly thrashing ivory limbs – to have come from being dropped onto Charles’s golden carpet of the winds by someone famous (a poet, a painter, Proust) in a moment of fin-de-siècle excitement.  Or that the deeply ingrained dust lodged under the wings of a cicada resting on a walnut shell comes from being hidden in a Viennese mattress. It probably doesn’t.

One of the great strengths of The Hare with the Amber Eyes is that it doesn’t ignore the excesses of the nouveaux-riches. It doesn’t downplay the extent of their wealth and privilege, nor the self-indulgence of their way of life. I couldn’t help but make parallels to the current social movements against the 1% and the financial sector in general. The 99% of that time were angry and laid open the way for Hitler and his comforting blame game. But although I believe most readers thought  “this is too much” at some point in the book (a jeweled turtle – are you kidding me?!), we were never allowed to share the “they got it coming” philosophy.

It is on this visit that I go to the Jewish archive in Vienna, the one seized by Eichmann, to check up on the details of the marriage.  I look through the ledger to find Viktor, and there is an official red stamp across his first name.  It reads “Israel”. An edict decreed that all Jews had to take new names. Someone has gone through every single name in the lists of Viennese Jews and stamped them “Israel” for the men, “Sara” for the women.

I am wrong. The family is not erased, but written over. And, finally, it is this that makes me cry.

*goose-bumps* It reminded me of the time I crumbled watching Alan Cumming’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are.

For a book that goes so deeply into family history, I learned a lot about history in general. The gradual infiltration of Nazi ideals in Austrian society was especially interesting. It coincided with some of the book’s most moving scenes: de Waal’s grandfather isolated in his country estate, penniless and without a nationality, the courage of his grandmother in entering the country to rescue him, and the story of Anna, the faithful servant. Her part in the netsuke’s history is the stuff of legend.

Anna gave me lots of food for thought. What made her stay and rescue the netsuke? Loyalty? Her own personal form of rebellion? And then, shockingly, the family didn’t even remembered her last name. There is no excuse for this, although I also saw her as someone self-effacing and easily over-looked. How else could she have lived all those years in the occupied house?

There is such pedigree in the Ephrussi family, they were all so amazing and influential (Charles has a cameo in Monet’s Luncheon of the Boating Party and was the inspiration for one of main characters in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past) that I can’t help but keenly feel just how utterly obscure my ancestors are. More than that, I feel sorry there’s almost no family history or objects that have trickled down to my brother and me.

By the end of the book de Waal is in possession of the netsuke. Apart from frail letters and documents, they’re all that’s left of a great family that once had everything. The netsuke are once again ready to begin yet another chapter in their amazing history.

***

Other thoughts: Savidge Reads, Shelf Love, Reading Matters, things mean a lot, Tales from the Reading Room, chasing bawa, Hannah Stoneham’s Book Blog, Boston Bibliophile, Winstonsdad’s Blog, My Book Year, Vulpis Libris, Novel Insights, Canadian Bookworm, Lucybird’s Book Blog, Page 247, Desperate Reader, MarysLibrary, Cornflower Books, Eve’s Alexandria (yours?)

The only reason why I didn’t give this book a 5 out of 5 was because the book-snob in me kicked in and thought it would be too much to place it up there with Austen and Garcia Marquez. That being said, it was an utterly rewarding read: an entrancing, fast-paced view of the art world, with a good dose of investigative history and terrific storytelling.

You might recognize Philip Mould is part of the team of experts in Antiques Roadshow, where he evaluates paintings. He also started his own antiques business and soon realized that the best way to get profit and satisfy his own taste for adventure was to go after hidden masterpieces. Some risks paid off, others were disastrous, but this book focuses of six success stories – six fabulous paintings and how their true identity was uncovered.

My favorite story was about a Rembrandt self-portrait, so over-painted to reflect the fashion of different owners and centuries, that it became labelled as “by a follower of the artist”. Mould tells us of the painting’s adventures until it’s finally recognized as an original. In between he describes the birth of the Rembrandt Research Project, a unique initiative created by the Dutch Government, to ensure the protection of one of the country’s biggest assets from forgery and misattributions. The RRP is currently Chaired by Ernst van de Wetering, a fascinating man who Mould unapologetically admires:

In an old house if Amsterdam lives a professor who wields daunting power in the highest echelons of the art world. His name is Ernst van de Wetering, and he has come to be an arbiter of life and death for the works of Rembrandt.

Some of Mould’s stories are set outside the UK. He went to the United States to gather information about a Norman Rockwell painting that for four years lay hidden behind a false wall, while a forgery held a place of honor in the Norman Rockwell Museum. I also found myself hanging at the edge of my seat during his trip to the Bahamas to uncover the past of a Homer watercolor found in a dumpster in Ireland.

Each story becomes addictive and compelling because Mould tells is from a human perspective, adding interesting historic and personal insights. It also helps that the book has images of the paintings he’s describing. I lost count of the times I went back to them as I read.

If you’re interested in art or history, apart from this book I’d also recommend the BBC Series Fake or Fortune, presented by Philip Mould, the man himself. One of the episodes is about the Homer watercolor.

 

Other thoughts: S. Krishna’s Books, The Cineaste’s Bookshelf (yours?)

Book read for One, Two, Theme Challenge
Theme 3: Art business/Restoration

Sometimes I crave chick-lit just like I crave a whole box of Kinder Delices, so I always try to keep some around is case of emergency, which in the case of chick-lit usually happens when Spring is in the air. (I pretty much crave Kinder Delices all the time – any other fans out there?)

I’ve recently read two very different examples of the genre, the first was Watermelon by Marian Keyes, who wrote my all-time favorite chick-lit – Sushi for Beginners, and the other was Faking It, my first Jennifer Crusie.

Watermelon (Walsh Family 1)

Claire Webster’s husband decided to dump her exactly on the day she gave birth to their daughter. Worst, he’s leaving her for a neighbor with whom he’d been having an affair for months. Claire decides to leave London and lick her wounds at her parents place in Dublin, where two of her four lunatic sisters still live.

It was Keyes’ first novel and it shows: her great sense of humor is there, but the characters were pure caricatures and Claire was so fickle, whiny, and painfully insecure that she make it impossible for me to identify with her, a capital offence for this type of books.

The description of Claire’s depression and alcohol abuse were very realistic and you can tell Keyes is talking about something she experienced, but they just go on forever. For half of the book we are plunged into the depths of Claire’s dark, over-analytical soul and aimless thought process… ad nauseam.

And while the depression felt real, it’s clear that Keyes had never had a baby or been around a newborn. Claire’s daughter was the easiest baby in the world, a side-note in her mother’s heart-ache. There was this one particular scene that made me cringe. The baby is handed to Adam’s arms (the hero) and Claire thinks to herself that her daughter is “one lucky bitch”. How callous is this?! *shudder*

Also, Claire gained 40 lbs during pregnancy but one month later, thanks to her diet of vodka and little else (while breast-feeding), she’s able to fit into her 18 year-old sister’s clothes. Right!


Faking It

Plot completely over the top and belief always on “suspended” mode, but it delivered what I needed: good dialogue, eccentric characters, easy writing and fast pace. It also had the extra of being set in an art gallery, so it can count for my Art Business theme for the One, Two, Theme Challenge.

If you’re a fan of old movies you’ll also appreciate the copious amount of references.

Apart from that, not much more to say, really.

Any recommendation for my next Crusie?

Steampunk: a subgenre of speculative fiction, usually set in an anachronistic Victorian or quasi-Victorian alternate history setting. It could be described by the slogan “What the past would look like if the future had happened sooner.” It includes fiction with science fiction, fantasy or horror themes.
in Urban Dictionary


I’ve only recently discovered that steampunk it’s actually a genre, but I’ve always been instinctively attracted to that type of atmosphere. I’m interested in knowing more, so decided to go deeper into it in 2011, specially since I haven’t found a novel as good as my favorite steampunk graphic novels and anime movies. So if you have recommendations, please let me know. Already on my radar:

  • Boneshaker by Cherie Priest
  • The Steampunk Trilogy by Paul di Filippo
  • Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
  • Larklight by David Wyatt

What I really like about steampunk is the aesthetic component. If well done it completely stimulates the areas in my brain for imagination, adventure, romance and beauty. Steampunk also fits with my love of art-nouveau and other late-XIX and early-XX century glass-and-metal architecture. Train stations and greenhouses in particular fascinate me and I could be hours just soaking in the environment at Antwerp Central or St Pancras.

Because it’s so visual, steampunk adjusts well to all types of channels: books, graphic novels, movies, anime, design, illustration, fashion and architecture. (Question: on impulse I would say that steampunk would attract more male followers, would that be right? Note to self: investigate)


Most people read/watch steampunk without actually categorizing it as such, but lately it;s been picking up steam (no pun intended :)), and making a name for itself. In October 2009 Tor.com had a Steampunk Month, Oxford’s Museum of the History of Science had an exhibition on steampunk which ended in Feb 2010, and the TV series Castle will have a steampunk episode (called “Punk”) that promises to be memorable. Reading the advanced reviews really made me want to attend a meeting of aficionados.

In the book blogging world, The Bookkeeper is organizing a Steampunk Challenge, which I’ll join in 2011.


A couple of recommendations

Graphic Novels
These are actually my two favorite graphic novel series of all time, they just happen to be both steampunk.

  •  A League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill
    Especially satisfying for lovers of Victorian literature as it’s completely full of (more or less) obscure references.
  • The Cities of the Fantastic (Les Cités Obscures) by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters
    Not very famous outside the French-Belgian graphic novel world. Schuiter is the son of two architects and you can tell by his attention to architectonic detail. Think Twilight Zone meets Victor Horta meets Jules Verne.

Anime
… and these are all by Studio Ghibli

(Aachen’s Cathedral after bombings – photo from here)

One of the biggest intersections in my life was at the end of high school when I had to decide what to study in college. We don’t have a minor and major system, so whatever you choose you’ll have to stick to it for at least 4 years, unless you start again. My choice was between art restoration and communications. I loved the idea of both, but was aware that it was a choice between risk and safety, since the restoration market in Portugal is tinny, prestigious connections mean a lot and I was as middle class as they come. So I went with the safer option.

I don’t regret the decision, but still think a lot about it. My dream job would be doing comms for an organisation like UNESCO. I still continue to have a great interest in art and the efforts to preserve it, so this book’s theme was right up my alley.

The Monuments Men (non-fiction) is about the untold story of a group of soldiers whose main mission was to help save the artistic and architectural treasures at risk during and after WWII. It’s a fascinating, almost unknown account, and one that (like Henrietta Lacks’) this book is helping bring to light. The story is divided into two parts. The first is about the Monuments Men who were in the battle front, trying to preserve as much art as possible in the villages and cities gradually taken over by the Allied forces. The second details the treasure hunt for the art pieces systematically looted by the Nazis from their occupied territories, mainly France and Belgium.

Although the author is from the start focusing on the build up towards the second part, it was the first that touched me the most. The Monuments Men’s descriptions of entering for the first time since their severe bombings in cities like Aachen and Cologne were incredibly real. Captain Hancock’s exploration of Aachen’s Cathedral (which I visited for the first time only a couple of months ago), his account of what was lost forever and miraculously salvaged, got me all choked up. Other favorite bits were Edsel’s passionate telling of the theft and hunt for the Ghent Panel and the Bruges Madonna (both here in Belgium), which I’ve also seen several times without knowing this part of their history – note to self: go back and look again.

Through the personal experiences of these men and women, including letters they wrote home, Edsel draws the bigger picture: art as a the visible part of what’s best in Man and its frailty when faced with war. He also briefly touches on more modern examples, suggesting that a Monuments Men-type of team could have prevented the looting of 15.000 priceless works of art from Baghdad’s National Museum. I wish he had gone more into the situation in current conflicts. Do you remember the Taliban’s bombing of the Buddha statues in Afghanistan back in 2001? What about the bombing of Dubrovnik in 1991 during the Yugoslavian War? Did we learn anything from the Monuments Men’s experiences during WWI?

Here’s one of my favorite passages:

Outside, the colonel was cheering, delighted by his first encounter with warfare. Inside, two Monuments Men bent over a four-hundred-year-old painting in the faint light of a newly arrived lamp. The first was kneeling on the ground, studying its surface like an archeologist in an Egyptian tomb or a medic with a wounded man. The second hunched behind him, concentrating on his notes. The soldiers, tired and dirty, huddled around them like the shepherds in the manger, staring silently at a painting of expressive faces and peasant villagers and at the two adult men in soldier’s grab fussing over every square centimeter of its surface.

I’m aware that the reason I loved this book so much has more to do with the theme than the writing. I enjoyed Edsle’s style, but some parts felt a bit slow and I don’t think he was quite there when describing the inner musings of some of the characters. But overall, it was an exciting, touching and uplifting story. I’m sure I’ll never enter the Louvre or look up at Cologne’s dark Cathedral (I call it Saruman’s Tower) in the same way.

(Cologne after Allied bombing – it’s Cathedral almost intact – photo from here)

Other books I liked about artists, art works and its restoration:

  • The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier, about the making of the six famous tapestries with the same name.
  • The Flanders Panel by Arturo Perez-Reverte, about a mystery hidden in a painting from the 15th century, uncovered by the restorer working on it.
  • The Sarantine Mosaic duology by Guy Gavriel Kay, a fantasy novel inspired in 6th centure Byzantium, about a mosaicist’s travels and adventures.
  • The Forest Lover by Susan Vreeland, a novel based on the life of Canadian painter Emily Carr.
  • My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok, a moving story about a Hasidic Jewish boy in New York City who from its infancy shows sign of an amazing talent in painting.

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