Young Girl Reading Pierre-Auguste Renoir Buy Art Prints Now
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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Young Girl Reading is an oil painting completed in 1886. Although not one of Renoir's most celebrated works, it is recognisable as belonging to the great artist, and has much in common with many of his better-known paintings

To begin with, its subject matter is one to which Renoir would return several times. Throughout his broad catalogue of works, there is a large number of candid images of young women, shown going about their daily activities seemingly unaware of the artist. Indeed, this is far from his only painting of a girl engrossed in a book.

Several similar paintings can be found in Renoir’s ouevre, showing girls reading, their eyes often lidded or otherwise hidden from view, while the artist takes on an almost voyeuristic role, creating a snapshot-style image. The viewer is thus drawn into an intimate scene: the subject of the painting, although carefully posed, is lost entirely in her reading matter.

This painting came at a turning point in Renoir's career. His earlier works had been defiantly Impressionist, but, when Young Girl Reading was painted, he had spent several years studiously rejecting the movement and emulating earlier, classical techniques, inspired by Raphael.

Now this period was coming to a close, and Renoir was adopting a more balanced approach, bringing back touches of his Impressionist roots. Such a balance can be seen in this painting - the girl's face, outline, hands and book are carefully defined, but the thin brush strokes which make up her clothing and the backdrop of curtains and window show plainly the influence of Impressionism.

Impressionism marked the start of women becoming artists as well as just subjects for paintings. In a male-dominated world, this had rarely been seen before. In the 20th century, there were many more female painters such as Frida Kahlo, who was productive in portraiture and contributed expressive paintings such as The Two Fridas, The Broken Column and Self-Portrait with Monkey.

The saturated colours that can be seen in the painting are also typical of Renoir's works; the flowers in the girl's hat are particularly vibrant, and are echoed elsewhere in the painting. The vivid orange of the flowers recalls the illustration in the book, and the blue of the hatband harmonises with the curtain. These rich tones, which serve here to lend the painting a certain air of joy, are seen throughout Renoir’s body of work.

There is a curious juxtaposition in this painting, often seen in Renoir's paintings of women reading. Although the artist is posed as a voyeur, watching the subject in a candid moment - in fact, the angle allows the viewer to see the pages of the book, suggesting that we are reading over her shoulder - the painting lacks the sensuality which often characterised Renoir's studies of women.

Here, the subject seems entirely innocent. Her skin is almost completely covered, and her figure barely defined under her clothes. The shades of pale blue and white which make up the shirt or dress that she wears are reminiscent of the Virgin Mary, suggesting innocence and purity.