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The Art of Reading

Part 3

Not all readers are so effortlessly able to conceal their enjoyment of what they are reading. In this 17th century study of a peasant, Adriaen van Ostade captures a whole body engaged in the drama of reading. Sitting sideways on a simple chair, the broadsheet grasped by both hands, the right leg dynamically thrust forward, the peasant's whole expression reveals his engagement and fascination with what he reads.

In contrast to Adriaen van Ostade's peasant this 17th century study of an old man by Jusepe de Ribera (lo Spagnoletto), portrays somebody who has probably devoted most of his life to spiritual matters. And although the putti that fly around him are more likely there because the artist did not want to waste the paper, it is tempting to read them as visions conjured up by the old man through the magic of reading.

Again, what he is reading we will never know because, like the lines on the pages that Mary reads to Jesus, the lines on this old man's sheet of paper are equally unreadable. Interestingly the artist has used similar lines to represent the shadow of the stone the old man rests upon, the folds of his robe and the feathers of the putti's wings. Such a correspondence between two separate forms of representation, drawing and writing, reminded me of a passage from Plato's Phaedrus. Quoting Socrates he describes a joint fate for both writing and painting (and, of course, drawing). I leave it up to you, the reader, to judge whether the fate he speaks of is one to be welcomed or mourned: 'The productions of painting look like living beings, but if you ask them a question they maintain a solemn silence. The same holds true of written words; you might suppose that they understand what they are saying, but if you ask them what they mean by anything they simply return the same answer over and over.'

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