Woman Reading, by Pierre Auguste Renoir
This is one of my favorite paintings. I got a *very* cheap print of it from the tacky discount store in my hometown when I was in High School and have moved it from apartment to apartment, house to house in California, Oregon, Indiana, and now Colorado, It now resides in the basement, but will find its place in my soon to be revamped office. At the time I bought it, I just thought it was cool and I knew the word “impressionist” It made me feel smart. I knew that Renoir had done a lot of famous paintings, but this wasn’t really one of them. I thought that was part of its charm, too. How hipster was I? Hipster before it was a thing.
One day, years after I bought the print, I was in Paris, I can’t remember now which of the two or three trips it was, and I was in the gift shop at the Musée d’Orsay and thought to myself “if any place on Earth is going to have info on this fairly obscure painting, I’m standing there”. A smart idea since the original hangs there. There was a short blurb in a Renoir book that pretty much said “it’s just a portrait he painted in 1875-76. The end.” Even today you can’t find much more information online about the painting. But there was one interesting fun fact: though he painted her with a book he preferred women who could not read, stating that illiterate women were better tempered and easier to get along with (paraphrasing). What a jerk.
And then it occurred to me: this painting is now extra awesome. Renoir is dead and buried, but she’s still hanging out in one of the greatest museums in the word, still reading. Hundreds or even thousands of copies of the painting are doing the same in homes all over the place. She’s a totally rockin’ feminist. Go Lise! (That’s what I named her. It was my name in French class).
I had another revelation as well: one of my characters from my debut Promised to the Crown, Elisabeth, reminds me very much of this painting. She’s a quiet, sweet, unassuming girl. She’s tall, with broad, masculine features, much to her petite mother’s dismay. Her only real beauty is a mane of wheat-blonde hair. She’s not allowed to learn how to read and her mother is bothered beyond words that she spends all her time with her father learning how to run a bakery. What’s worse is that she’s very, very good at it. If she’d been born a boy, she’d have become a master pastry chef. Instead, she ends up escaping to the New World and starting a bakery with her husband.
She’s lucky. Her husband recognizes her skill and “allows” her to run the business as an equal as she had done at her father’s side. The problem? Society and the Church in New France didn’t like it. Elisabeth never set forth to be a feminist. In 1667 the word and the concept didn’t exist. back then, there were two kids of women: there were “good girls” and girls who needed to be taken in hand. In her way, she’s the most subversive character in the book, simply because she wants to be left alone.
Elisabeth was never particularly easy to write, but now I absolutely love her. I imagine her in the kitchen with her flour, butter, sugar, and eggs (perhaps yearning for some cocoa powder that she can’t get in the New World) looking at the possibilities like Van Gogh looking at a blank canvas. She invents, she sculpts, she expertly calculates inventory, and surprises her clientele with creative selections for a Wednesday supper or Christmastide feat. She is a consummate blend of artist and business woman. And a total badass.
I love this job.
(adapted from my previous blog in 2013)