The Reader of Novels by Antoine Wiertz

The Reader of Novels by Antoine Wiertz (1853)

In recent posts I have looked at the works of William Etty, which featured nudity and the controversy they caused.  I have also recently looked at works by William Blake the subjects of which caused many to question his mental stability.  Today I am going to look at a work by a Belgian Romantic artist and sculptor whose works also caused some controversy and whose mental state was also questioned.  He was looked upon as one of the great eccentrics in the history of art.  His name is Antoine Joseph Wiertz and I was requested to look at his very unusual painting entitled La Liseuse de Romans (The Reader of Novels) which he completed in 1853.

Wiertz was born in Dinant, Belgium in 1806.  At the age of fourteen, having shown a modicum of artistic talent, he enrolled at the Antwerp Art Academy.  Here he studied under Guillaume-Jacques Herreyns, the Flemish painter who was considered the last of the school of Rubens and Mathieu Ignace van Bree, the Belgian painter and sculptor.   Having come from a relatively poor family environment Wiertz was fortunate to receive an annual stipend from King William I of Netherlands through the good auspices of Wiertz’s protector, the politician, Pierre-Joseph de Paul de Maibe.

In 1829, aged twenty-three Wiertz moved to Paris where he stayed for three years and spent a great deal of his time studying the old masters at the Louvre.   It was whilst in the French capital that he also came into contact with the French Romantic painters, such as Théodore Géricault and it was through him that Wiertz began to appreciate and admire the works of the Flemish master, Pieter Paul Rubens.  Wiertz idolised Rubens. 

Having come second with his entry in the 1828 Grand Concours for the Belgian Prix de Rome, organised by the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Antwerp, he tried again in 1832.  This time Wiertz’s efforts proved successful and he was awarded the cherished Prix de Rome prize which came with an annual bursary and the chance to stay at the Palazzo Mancini in Rome for three to five years and all the costs of this stay were paid for by Belgian State.

Wiertz travelled to Rome in 1834 and stayed for three years.  Here he studied the works of Michelangelo and Raphael.   It was also during that time that his artistic leaning changed.  He virtually abandoned his landscape works and his paintings which depicted life in the Italian capital and focused on Roman and Greek mythological subjects.  In 1836 he completed one of his major works entitled Les Grecs et les Troyens se disputant le corps de Patrocle (The Greeks and the Trojans Contesting the Body of Patroclus) in which  he portrays a scene from Homer’s book, Iliad.  The way he depicted the musculature of the men vying for the body of Patroculus won great favour with the art critics and this painting was to prove a turning point in Wiertz’s career.  It was a somewhat violent scene and it was said that children on looking at the painting ran from it in horror.

 Wiertz returned to Belgium in 1837 and set up home with his mother in Liège.  Buoyed by the success of this painting when exhibited in Rome he sent it to Paris to be included in the 1838 Salon but it was received too late and was included in the following year’s exhibition.  However, much to his annoyance the painting was not placed in a favourable position in the Salon and it went unnoticed by the public, worse still it did not receive the plaudits from the French art critics and was criticised in the French press.  Wiertz was devastated by the treatment his painting received and never forgave the French for this snub.

Following on from this debacle, Wiertz’s artistic style changed and the subjects of his works became somewhat more excessive.  Tragedy struck in 1844 when his mother died and Wiertz was badly affected by her death.  He left Liège the following year and went to live in Brussels where he remained until his death.  In 1850, just twenty years after the formation of Belgium, the new Belgian government was in search of national idols and so when Wiertz, who had become famous in the country for his massive works of art, offered them to the State in return for them building him a huge comfortable and well lit studio.  His offer was accepted and the government agreed to display his works in the building during and after his lifetime.  They also agreed that the works would never be moved, loaned or placed in storage, but should remain “invariably fixed” to the walls of the studio Belgium had built for him.

Wiertz died in his studio in 1865, aged fifty-nine.   His remains were embalmed in accordance with Ancient Egyptian burial rites and buried in a vault in the municipal cemetery of Ixelles.  Wiertz was an artist with an arrogance which bordered almost on madness and which convinced not only his contemporaries but also himself of his own genius.

The painting featured in today’s My Daily Art Display is entitled La Liseuse de Romans (The Reader of Novels) which he completed in 1853 and is housed in the Wiertz Museum in Brussels.  When I was asked to feature this painting, I investigated the artist and the painting thinking there would have been a lot written about the elements of symbolism in the painting and that many art historians would have written their interpretation of what is before us.  However I was wrong as despite hours of research I can find little written about this work of art.  I was tempted to discard this blog entry because of the this lack of information but because the painting fascinates me I thought maybe if I published the blog somebody may come up with some background to it.

I suppose the first thing I should do to try and fathom out what is happening in the scene is to state what I see before me.   We see before us a naked woman lying on her back with her thighs slightly parted holding a book above her head to allow her to read it.  Next to her is a mirror which reflects her nudity.  Besides her on the bed are more books and we can see someone or something in the act of either placing a book on the bed or about to remove one.

I get the impression that the woman is enjoying what she is reading.  Dare I suggest that the book is in some way titillating her and maybe the contents of the book are of a sexual nature?  Look closely at the figure, which is surreptitiously moving his hand towards the books on the bed.   Am I imagining that he has “horn like” structures on his head?  Am I to conclude that this is actually a satyr and that he is supplying the woman with books of a sexual nature which she is finding so arousing?  Are we looking at a scene of temptation and corruption?

I do apologise for not having any firm answers as to what is going on in the painting but then again we must remember that they would only be opinions and interpretations by third parties and who is to say they are correct in their assumptions.  So what is your opinion on what we are looking at in today’s featured painting?

Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

8 thoughts on “The Reader of Novels by Antoine Wiertz”

  1. Thanks for researching this for me. Most interesting. Hope you and your family have a wonderful Christmas. Peter & Julie

  2. As you look closely at the detail, it becomes a most erotic painting with a lot of “not so subtle” clues. What caught my attention is the mirror on the bed and the flower head piece hanging on the morror and the black silk robe hanging off the end of the bed. And yes, the character feeding her more erotic novels does appear to be a satyr. Perhaps this is a painting of a young woman just becoming sexually aware and feeling the rush of excitement for the first time as she reads erotic novels. It’s a Friday night and she’s settled in to be to indulge in her secret pleasures.

  3. Hi,

    First merry Christmas and happy holidays to you. Thank you for your blog. I might not comment often to I thoroughly enjoy reading it.

    Secondly, I totally concur with your surmise and Peter’s post above. It is a totally erotic painting. The mirror is what clued me to it. It also clues me that the woman is a willing participant, not coerced by the satyr. And yes, I totally agree there too.

  4. I had a Chinese artist reproduce this painting for me. When I received it I noticed for the first time that there is a tear falling down the woman’s cheek symbolising ???? lost innocence I presume.

  5. And what is not to be forgotten is that the “man” is not only touching the book but pushing it towards her, otherwise his hand would be ON the book, not on its side. I guess he’s infusing his sexual nature in the books to feed the young woman’s curiosity. This is confirmed by the curious red light emanating from him.
    And I agree with the above statement, the flower head piece has bright colours, like the ones you’d find during springtime. The black dress and red belt could symbolise Eros and Thanatos; as said before, the lost of her innocence and the discovery of her sexuality.
    What’s more, at that time and especially for an academical painter, nudes were supposed to be classical and elegant, whereas here we see a very unusual choice of composition : a woman reading, nude? Why not in an elegant dress, sitting in her boudoir?
    As for the mirror, we can see that it isn’t placed at the top of the bed but facing her “hum-hum”! Her legs are leaning towards it, so if she looks down at it, she’s not going to see her face… I believe this is a direct clue to what the painting is about.

  6. I just like the idea that here Dumas was being blamed as part of the problem relating to the corruption of the youth, just as video games, movies, comics and penny dreadfuls were in the years that followed.

  7. The book being urged upon the reader is not a novel at all, but Antony, a non-historical drama in five acts by Dumas. Considered to be the first drama moderne, its themes were “love, jealousy, anger.” Antony is a young man, unable to have the woman he desires, yet unwilling to be bound by accepted morality. After an absence of three years, he returns to find her married and a mother. Uncertain of her ability to resist Antony, she attempts to flee to her husband, but is intercepted by Antony, angered by her farewell missive, who proceeds to have his way with her. As time passes, rumors abound, and her angry husband returns to confront her. Unwilling to run away with Antony, she begs him instead to kill her. He surprisingly obliges, then, as hubby breaks down the door, reports, “She resisted me–I have killed her.” The end. Scandalous. What motivates the hidden character to have the Reader put aside her novel and read Antony instead?

  8. In the 18th and 19th century, the reading of novels was frowned upon, especially if the reader was a woman. And beds were for sleeping. French educator Jean-Baptiste de La Salle fumed about the habit in 1703: “Imitate not certain persons who busy themselves in reading and other matters; stay not in bed if it be not to sleep, and your virtue shall much profit from it.” The woman might be avoiding her responsibilities to her household, getting strange ideas, or heaven forbid, start thinking like a man. The figure under the bed is a devil-figure, providing more temptation by passing more books up to her.

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