Women portrayed reading

Browsing art images on Wikimedia I can’t help noticing how women who read are portrayed in art. There is the traditional Madonna pose, two dimensional, upright and devout, harking back to the stilted stylism of Mediaeval art. She is typically portrayed in profile, reading a bible, missal or book of hours, at any rate, something improving, worthwhile, and seemly. Her face is blank, bent modestly in prayer, or at best, lifted heavenward, whence she might locate divine guidance for her state, her sin, or her enlightenment, and we might glimpse the colour of her eyes.


Then there are the others, young women who have the temerity to enjoy reading. If young, the reader’s eyes are modestly lowered or to the side, rarely directly greeting the viewer. For a young woman reading to look directly into the eyes of the viewer would be too inflaming to male desires, too provocative by half, too presumptuous of a woman’s place in the hierarchy of expectations.

Women who read anything racy, modern or even, erm, suspect, are portrayed as loose, lazy, boneless, filled with the lassitude of immodest – and faintly improper – activities that a young woman should not be wasting her time with, frankly. Far better that she should wash the family’s laundry, visit paupers with nourishing meals and generally deploy her talents for the common good. Shocking, that she might actually be seen to smile! At most, a modest smile is allowed.


Older women, on the other hand, the older mothers and the post-menopausal matriarchs can do what the hell they like, and are quite freely painted full face, frank, and honest. It is one of the real blessings of growing older, (and, by implication surviving childbirth) that older women are freer of the conventions of good behaviour and submission.



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