Friday, March 06, 2015

Girl Reading by Katie Ward

I love calendars.  We have them in nearly every room, but my favorite is a series we have had for the last eight years: Reading Women.  Each month features portraits of women from various times and places – all with a book in their hands.  Recently, I learned of a novel, Girl Reading by Katie Ward, who was born in Somerset, England in 1979.  She now lives in Suffolk, England with her husband and two cats.

Simone Martini  The Annunciation 1333 
Each chapter deals with an artist, a model, and a painting.  The first, is a well-known triptych by Simone Martini from the fourteenth century, commissioned by a bishop to decorate the altar of the cathedral in Siena.  The artist picks, as his model, an orphan left on the doorstep of a convent.  Laura has plans to take the veil, but the artist has other ideas.  Ward writes, “Simone Martini has begun preparatory drawings; with each one his humor deteriorates further still.  He sketches them out with a pen and red and black inks, bent like a monk in a scriptorium, his back giving him pain.  Sometimes the modelli are more elaborate – he goes as far as making meticulous scale paintings.  Laura watched with curiosity the first time he broke an egg into a cup, the familiar sound causing her to look up.  He slithered the yolk in his fingers, pinched it, pierced the sac with a tiny blade, let the yellow liquid run out to mix with ground pigment.  These are Simone’s experiments in color and design, but Laura knows them only as a flourish and a blur when he casts them aside as inadequate” (19).

Pieter Janssens Erlinga
Girl Reading  1668
Simone Martini was born circa 1284, in Siena, and he died in 1344, in Avignon.  He was an important figure in Gothic Painting, who did more than any other artist to spread the influence of Sienese painting.  You can easily find detailed pictures of the triptych on line.  When I looked at details of the triptych, I could easily see the character Laura seated with a prayer book in her lap.  Who says we can’t learn anything from fiction? 

The language in the first chapter sounds to me a lot like the writing of the period.  Ward then goes onto a Dutch Master in 1668.  This piece Woman Reading, painted by Pieter Janssens Elinga – a Dutch Master painter who has fallen on hard times, bears an uncanny resemblance to The Girl with the Pearl Earring.  This novel by Tracy Chevalier relates the story of a servant in the household of Vermeer who cleans his studio, begins mixing paints, and then sits for the famous portrait.  The next chapter covers a woman artist, Angelica Kauffman in England of 1775, then a photograph taken in 1864 London, anonymous painters in 1916 and 2008, and finally a painting dated 2060.  The thread which ties all these tales together is the artistic sensibilities of the artist, the dedication of the subjects, and the sometimes nefarious dealers and gallery owners who sell the art.  The novel demonstrates that some things never change.

Angelica Kauffmann
Portrait of a Lady 1775
Anonymous For Pleasure 1916

George Dunlop Leslie (?)
Woman Reading circa 1885
Not in the book, but just because I like it.
If the novel has a flaw it is the precociousness of some of the poor, illiterate young women used as models.  It did not seem realistic to me.

I found some of the paintings mentioned in the novel, and I have posted them here.  Girl Reading by Katie Ward makes an interesting read for anyone intrigued by art, the peculiarities of the artistic sensibility, and the roles models play in a great painting.  4 stars

--Chiron, 3/5/15

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