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Go Inside the Minds of Art's Most Famous Female Readers

The Reader is an art project that creatively plunges into the inner life of art history’s most voracious female book lovers.

We bet she’s thinking “I have it made.”Woman Reading in the Forest, Gyula Benczur (1875).

Museums and galleries are full of them. They have captivated art lovers for centuries, and launched a thousand questions. But who are they? Well, they are women enjoying a good book—and now they’re getting their moment in the sun. The Reader is a new online art, writing, and sound project that gives voice to the many mysterious women depicted as readers in paintings—inviting viewers to imagine their inner lives in rich detail. Created by the Kadist Art Foundation in early 2015, the site’s organizers, Joseph del Pesco and Enar de Dios Rodriguez, invited artists from around the world to create inner monologues for historical women on canvas—elevating them from one dimensional objects into real characters.


Artists who have so far contributed to the project include Christine Sun Kim, Marcelline Delbecq (Paris), Adriana Lara (Mexico City), Beatriz Santiago Muñoz (Puerto Rico), and many others to be announced. The paintings used in the project were selected from the online archives of established museums, which according to the KAF make them “liable to criticism and new kinds of interpretation.”

The Reader Wreathed with Flowers, Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot.

“In researching paintings by anonymous artists and unknown subjects, we discovered an unusual recurrence of women reading books, where the text on the pages of the book is indecipherable, and the book remains unidentified,” says Joseph del Pesco. “The contents of the pages of these books, abstracted in brushstrokes, suggest a world of possible narratives. This led to a series of questions like: Who are these women? Are the details of their lives and stories lost to an erosion of historical record? What was her relationship to the book? We started to think about the women, the book, and the painter as three characters in a possible narrative formation.”

The Reading Girl, Theodore Roussel.

Artists and writers invited to participate in the project were tasked with creating a provocative “intermingling of fiction and museological record.” The result is a charmingly irreverent take on both art history and the male gaze/beautiful-woman-as-muse dynamic. In a text by Christine Sun Kim (read by Tarnia Jones) The Reader (by Harold Knight) thinks to herself “I smell corned beef with garlic. I hear water boiling and metal clinks coming from kitchen. I smell my own wine breath. I feel a small burp coming from below. I wonder if it is okay to browse books. I find it easier to take a vertical book out with a finger and thumb, but not when there is a weighty horizontal book above it, holding vertical books down like a fort (hovering with a grin).”

The Reader by Harold Knight

On an interesting note, Sun Kim is deaf but often makes audio artworks. This adds a new dimension of inventiveness to her imagined dialogues, which include sensory prompts like the appearance of “invisible thick fog” and “heat emits from mouth/nose/ears.”

One of the most recent contributions, from Adriana Lara, contains a section of the Marquis de Sade’s Philosophy in the Bedroom, dramatically altering the viewing, or “reading” of a painting of two young girls.

Imagine this image with an apocalyptic voice over. Two Girls Reading, Arthur George Walker.

While we’re unable to embed the full audio recording, check out the thereader.kadist.org for more on this thought-provoking project.