Women Who Read = Dangerous

My mother-in-law owns a really great book called Women Who Read Are Dangerous. The book is a compilation of artwork (mostly paintings) that depict women reading (or holding books). I think that the idea of this book is really fun, and it made me (jokingly) think about the plausibility of creating a Washer Women Are Dangerous book!

I particularly am struck by how many of these paintings fit into the idea of rejecting the male gaze. There are so many paintings that depict women actively involved in the act of reading. Instead of inviting a (male) viewer of the painting to look at them, these women are completely absorbed in their books. They deflect the gaze of the viewer and move the focus of the painting to the book or letter. Curiously, a lot of the reading women appear in profile view, which is similar to Barbara Kruger’s Your Gaze Hits the Side of My Face (I’ve written more about Kruger’s work and the male gaze here). Fun stuff. It’s also fun to think about the male gaze and think about another photograph in this book: Eve Arnold’s 1952 photograph Marilyn Monroe Reading Ulysses (yes, Marylin actually was reading that classical piece of literature!). In some ways, I think one could argue that the pin-up actress was rejecting the male gaze in this photograph.

Anyhow, here are a couple of fun pieces that also appear in the book:

Carl Larsson, Karin Reading, 1904
(Not only is she rejecting/deflecting the male gaze by being in profile, but her hand is covering part of her face!)

Pieter Janssens Elinga, Woman Reading, 1668-70

Tomb of Eleanor of Aquitaine, c. 1204

Johannes Vermeer, Woman Reading a Letter, c. 1663-64

Edward Hopper, Hotel Room, 1931

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Prophetess Anna (Rembrandt’s Mother), 1631

Walter Launt Palmer, Afternoon in the Hammock, 1882
(FYI – The greens in this painting are a lot more vibrant than in this reproduction)

There are a lot of other great paintings in this book that don’t have reproductions online, since they belong to private collections. You should get this book and check these paintings out, whether you are or aren’t a “dangerous woman” that likes to read!

What do you think about the idea of the male gaze in connection with these paintings? Do you have other favorite works of art that depict women reading?

  • heidenkind says:

    I love paintings of women reading, because I like to read. 🙂 One of my favorites is Femme Lisant by Corot.

    I think the women are still submitting to the male gaze, though, just as much as they would be if they're sewing or washing. Perhaps not as much as if they were bathing. But the paintings are still about peering into a woman's private life, I think, so there's still that sense of voyeurism that you find in work traditionally associated with the male gaze. On the plus side, I don't think it's necessarily a sexual voyeurism, but more of an intellectual one.

  • joolee says:

    i love the idea of women who read = dangerous, because I love to read too! there's one painting by Fragonard that has always struck me as being very beautiful, A Young Girl Reading (http://www.nga.gov/collection/gallery/gg55/gg55-46303.html), and although she is reading and somewhat deflecting the male gaze, she is still the focal point of the piece, which seems to have a feeling of submission to it, esp. with her position behind the bar or armrest.

    this subject also reminds me of SO many feisty and intellectual female characters in literature who defy convention and read to their heart's content. I love it!

  • M says:

    Thanks for your comment, heidenkind. I like your idea of an "intellectual" voyeurism. I agree, there is still a type of voyeurism that takes place within these private scenes, mainly because the women are involved in more intimate, personal acts and settings.

    I also don't think that sexual voyeurism is necessarily invited by these paintings, which is what I really meant about rejecting the male gaze. Since the women in these paintings are actively reading, I feel like they become "subjects" instead of "objects" to the male gaze – just like other female figures that are represented as actively involved in a project (for example, you mentioned sewing and washing). I think it can be argued that this change from object to subject makes the gaze less (male) gendered (or sometimes neutral?), since sexuality isn't immediately involved/invited/required.

    But I can also see what you're saying about how peering into a private life is voyeuristic. Even though these paintings aren't sexual, these paintings (and perhaps all paintings?) still require some type of voyeuristic gaze. Good point.

    And joolee, I love that Fragonard painting too! I'm glad that you're back from vacation – I've missed your thoughtful comments and fun blog posts!

  • E says:

    I absolutely love this post.

    I think it is all very beautiful artwork and I love the feminist message behind it.

  • GermyB says:

    With some of the other paintings in the book, I can't help but think that the woman reading is of a more practical nature – she's a model, and models need to stay still for long periods of time, so the painters let them read a book while they pose. For me, that turns some of the paintings into more academic exercises than anything voyeuristic.

    That said, I also like the "intellectual voyeurism" idea. The fact that the woman is reading elevates the "male gaze" from something sexual to something more thoughtful and curious. Like you said, M, they go from physical object to thinking subject. "Oh and by they way, male gazer, you don't get to know what I'm thinking about. So there."

    On the other hand, some of the images (the Marilyn and the Hopper in particular) are both sexually and intellectually voyeuristic, to me.

    I have to stop saying "voyeur." It's making me feel kinda dirty.

  • e says:

    What an interesting concept.

    GermyB's comment makes me chuckle.

  • Hels says:

    My favourites are late 19th century impressionist paintings that were largely of:
    a. young lovely women
    b. in late Victorian dresses, often white and fresh
    c. set in green gardens and
    d. reading, writing or thinking.

    Three examples will do – Mary Cassatt, Woman Reading in a Garden, 1880; Édouard Manet, Woman Reading, 1880; and Walter Launt Palmer, Afternoon in the Hammock, 1882.

    But I am very ambivalent. Not that the artist was showing how learned and focused the model was – that was great. Rather that the women were prevented from using their talents in the professions, arts or business. They were responsible for the childcare and housekeeping (even better if they had staff), but it was seen as a leisurely and fairly shallow life.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.