HomeCultureArt & Theatre

Art history: Beautiful paintings of books


30th Sep 2018 Art & Theatre

Art history: Beautiful paintings of books

Books and paintings often go hand in hand as an age-old symbiosis of storytelling through the arts. Here we show you some beautiful depictions of the two art-forms, captured together

Gerard Dou, Old Woman Reading a Bible


c.1630. Oil on panel, 71 x 55.5 (27 15/16 x 21 7/8). Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Gerard Dou, a pupil of Rembrandt, painted the people of the Dutch Golden Age, a time of prosperity and religious zeal. An elderly woman sits in authoritative profile with a book wide open.

The page on view is from the Gospel of Luke: a passage inviting the rich to give away half of their possessions to the poor. Her parted lips suggest she’s reading aloud, a common practice at this time for most Europeans who could read. She might in fact have an audience or perhaps she’s reading to herself, punctuating the words for stronger impression. Her fur-lined velvet coat and matching bonnet indicate her affluence, but will she be willing to do the evangelical good and part from half her riches?


Roger de la Fresnaye, Married Life, 1912.

Oil on canvas, 98.9 x 118.7 (38 15/16 x 46 ¾). Minneapolis Institute of Art. The John R. Van Derlip Fund (52.1)

In the cubist tradition, this painting shows the stuff of life in a rhythm of stylised forms. My eye is drawn to the four books in the top middle section of this canvas. Crowning the scene from the tilted table, they seem both to make a rift and to join the two partners.

The woman, somehow oddly painted in the nude compared to the man who’s fully clothed, clings on to her husband’s arm, he continues to blow smoke rather indifferently. Is this a scene of harmony or of distance between the sexes? Those stereotypes seem to give us marital bliss in a form as precarious as the balance of all the objects and shapes gathered in this painting.


Antonello da Messina, Virgin Annunciate

c.1476. Oil on panel, 45 x 34.5 (18 x 13 9/16). Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo

The Virgin at her lectern is facing out, she could be at a window. I see her as a rounded pyramid of the most precious blue, cut against a deep dark background. We, the viewers, look at her from where the artist was, from where the angel Gabriel is delivering God’s message that she will bear his son.

The power of this painting lies in the sense of sudden intrusion, the startling interruption of her reading a Book of Hours. You can find the messenger’s passing in the light movement of air which turns the page and lifts the veil that she elegantly holds back, or in her other hand raised towards him in admonition. But her gaze is oblique, almost blind, her thoughts possibly already on the mystical message.


Anonymous, A Man Reading

c.1660. Oil on canvas, 88 x 66.5 (34 3/8 x 26 3/16). Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

When I look at this image, I find its meaning unclear yet moving. A rather attractive man, fashionably dressed, sits in a landscape reading a book, facing his left. Is there a companion piece showing a woman in the same setting facing her right? The yellow and red ribbons suggest perhaps a festivity and the carnation a hope for love, but there’s coldness here.

The garden is bare, the tree offers a protective branch but no leaves or flowers, the scene is dim. He seems engrossed in his reading but doesn’t hold the book, and leaves it in a corner, at some distance, perhaps the poems too cannot give him solace or distraction and his mind strays in mysterious longings and an eternal wait.


Rogier van der Weyden, The Magdalene Reading, 1438.


Oil on panel, 62.2 x 54.4 (24 ½ x 21 7/16). National Gallery, London (NG654). Photo World History Archive/Alamy Stock Photo

This is a fragment of a larger painting, thought to be an altarpiece of the Virgin and Child with Saints. The two saints partly visible behind appear projected towards the centre of the lost composition, but Mary Magdalene—her identity disclosed by her attribute, the ointment jar in the foreground—seems absorbed in her own prayers.

I’d like to think that she is admiring the tome in her hand, just unwrapped of its soft overcover, with its minute marks, the bright ink, the solid elegant fasteners. Might she be taking in the smell of the vellum? She is dressed sumptuously and comfortably sitting on the lush red cushions, this image to me is less about holy prayers than about the love of books.


Paul Cézanne, Portrait of Gustave Geffroy, 1895.


Oil on canvas, 110 x 89 (45 3/8 x 35). Musée d’Orsay, Paris

This is an uncomfortable image. The novelist and art historian Gustave Geffroy sits at his writing desk in a stiff pose at an odd angle. Four books are open in front of him, seemingly all blank. The inkwell is at the edge of the canvas, almost out of reach. He really should be writing, or reading, but some thought or other is holding him back. His stare is vacant. Is this a writer’s block?

The story goes that when painting this portrait, Cézanne grew irritated. Because of the dislike of the sitter he cut the commission short and left it incomplete. It is then a case of hindered creativity: the painter lost interest in his subject. Yet when exhibited at the 1907 Autumn Salon this was Cezanne’s most admired canvas.


William-Adolphe Bouguereau, The Story Book, 1877.


Oil on canvas, 59.1 x 48.3 (23 ¼ x 19). Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Mary D. Keeler Bequest (40.12.40)

The mid-19th century saw the modern genre of children’s literature develop. As literacy increased, and printing techniques advanced, colour illustrated books aimed to a young audience became affordable and widely available. In this candid image, a child looks back with languid intensity, as if caught pausing from his, or her, bedtime reading.

The soft lighting in the sparse interior accentuates the luminous cheeks and pristine gown. The golden locks frame a mute yet alert expression. Bouguereau was often criticised for the sentimentality of his idealised style, but the angelic, almost ghostlike, figure in this image is probably down to the sad circumstances of the painter’s own family life. By the time this painting was finished, he had lost his wife and three of his own children.


René Magritte, La Reproduction interdite, 1937.

Oil on canvas, 81.5 x 65.5 (32 1/16 x 25 13/16). Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

The impossibility of this image has at its heart, as much surrealist art, a sense of anxiety. In Magritte’s whimsical looking-glass the man is trapped in an impossible reflection while the book shows its specular double as expected. Reproduction is not permitted, states the title of this painting, but it would seem that fiction, as in the reflected book, can exist in multiples.

The book portrayed is Edgar Allen Poe’s 1838 Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, a fantastical tale itself surreal… perhaps then the trickery lies with all art—whether painting or literature—that, as a reproduction of reality, should not be believed.

Books Do Furnish a Painting by Jamie Camplin and Maria Ranauro is published by Thames and Hudson.

Loading up next...