The Look of Reading: Book, Painting, Text

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Overview

We take for granted that words can describe pictures, but we don’t often consider that the reverse is also true: pictures can depict words, as well as the people reading them. In The Look of Reading, Garrett Stewart explores centuries of painted images of reading, arguing that they collectively constitute an overlooked genre in the history of art. 

A stunning array of artists—including Rembrandt, Picasso, Cassatt, and Caravaggio, among many others—have worked in this genre during the past five hundred years. With innovative interpretations of their work, ranging from Bellini’s open Bibles to Bacon’s mangled newsprint, Stewart examines the give-and-take between reading matter depicted in painting and the “look of reading” on the portrayed face. He then traces this kind of interaction from the sixteenth century, when pictured reading generally illustrated people reading holy scriptures, to later periods, when secular painting started to represent the inwardness and absorption associated especially with novel reading. Ultimately, Stewart shows how the subject fell out of such paintings altogether in the late twentieth century, replaced by words, scrawls, and blurs that put the viewer in the place of the reader. 

Lavishly illustrated with the paintings it discusses, The Look of Reading charts the life and death of an entire genre. Essential reading for art historians and literary theorists alike, it will become the definitive study of this overlooked aspect of the relationship between images and words.

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Editorial Reviews

Terry Castle

“A picture of someone reading: who would have imagined that this seemingly commonplace subject in Western art could take us so far into the enigmatic relations between word and image, self and other, life and death, the sacred and profane? Garrett Stewart’s new book is a work of ardent imagination, unimpeachable scholarship, and flaring, often pyrotechnic, brilliance. To read what he says about looking, indeed to look with him at Western art’s compulsive “scenes” of reading, is to see far and deep into literacy itself, and to appreciate anew the astonishing impact the written word has had on both human culture and modern subjectivity. A sumptuous, untrammeled, and inspiring work of intellectual discovery.”

James Heffernan

“A formidable, remarkably wide-ranging, erudite, and powerfully original study of a phenomenon that vividly straddles the very border between literature and visual art.”
Times Literary Supplement - Sebastian Carter

"Stewart has a superlatively alert eye for meanings and visual echoes in the pictures he is discussing. . . . This book is very well designed and produced, and lavishly illustrated. . . . It is a tribute to The Look of Reading that, long though it is, it prompts one's curiosity to know more."
Victorian Studies - Leah Price

"This is a book that every thinking person will want to read and look at. . . . [Stewart's subject] is not just an artistic tradition but also the compilation and commodification of that tradition at the moment when digital media are threatening to overtake the iconic book. His is one of those rare arguments that will change the way we see the world, and the canvas, and the page."
Poetics Today - Sabine Gross

"The book is a stylistic tour de force. . . . Stewart combines scholarly erudition and an at times stunning degree of theoretical and analytical sophistication with the intelligently playful style of an essay. . . . An admirable contribution to scholarship in virtually every respect: it investigates in great depth a previously underexplored topic and genre that allows for multidisciplinary engagement. It sets a very high standard and will without any doubt guide future work on this topic for years to come. The book is original in the best way, happily entering into dialogue with existing scholarship while at the same time significantly going beyond it."
MLQ - Herbert Lindenberger

"The Look of Reading is notable not only for its theoretical underpinnings and its historical breadth but above all for the depth and precision with which Stewart looks at individual paintings to work out the ideas guiding his book. One rarely encounters such a superb balance of theory and close reading in either art history or literary study. . . . Here and elsewhere Stewart has created an oeuvre that situates him as one of the finest, most probing thinkers working on problems of aesthetics today."
Michael Fried

The Look of Reading is Garrett Stewart at his indefatigable best. A characteristically rich, densely argued, often brilliantly observed consideration of pictures of reading and their transformations under the pressures of modernity.”

Herbert Tucker

“This book is as fully interdisciplinary as the visual genre it defines is radically intermedial, and the extraordinary level of synergy that Stewart’s exposition sustains is enough to animate a humanist’s dream of cold fusion. Here are virtuoso readings of dozens of panels, canvases, and photographs, linked into a strongly theorized story, four centuries long, about the way artists poising the depicted reader at an interart crossroads under incessant technological and social reconstruction have made her depict a lot more than that. Stewart’s vividly meditated instances show what promise attaches to mixed-media genre study, in pursuit of which his combined gifts of deep learning and high ingenuity will set a bracing standard.”

Times Literary Supplement

"Stewart has a superlatively alert eye for meanings and visual echoes in the pictures he is discussing. . . . This book is very well designed and produced, and lavishly illustrated. . . . It is a tribute to The Look of Reading that, long though it is, it prompts one's curiosity to know more."—Sebastian Carter, Times Literary Supplement

— Sebastian Carter

Victorian Studies

"This is a book that every thinking person will want to read and look at. . . . [Stewart's subject] is not just an artistic tradition but also the compilation and commodification of that tradition at the moment when digital media are threatening to overtake the iconic book. His is one of those rare arguments that will change the way we see the world, and the canvas, and the page."—Leah price, Victorian Studies

— Leah Price

Poetics Today

"The book is a stylistic tour de force. . . . Stewart combines scholarly erudition and an at times stunning degree of theoretical and analytical sophistication with the intelligently playful style of an essay. . . . An admirable contribution to scholarship in virtually every respect: it investigates in great depth a previously underexplored topic and genre that allows for multidisciplinary engagement. It sets a very high standard and will without any doubt guide future work on this topic for years to come. The book is original in the best way, happily entering into dialogue with existing scholarship while at the same time significantly going beyond it."

— Sabine Gross

MLQ

"The Look of Reading is notable not o
— Herbert Lindenberger

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226773940
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 1/1/2007
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 432
  • Product dimensions: 8.75 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Garrett Stewart is the James O. Freedman Professor of Letters in the Department of English at the University of Iowa. He is the author of, among other books, Between Film and Screen, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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Table of Contents


Contents

ix List of Illustrations
   Acknowledgements

Overview: Facing Pages  1

Part I: Toward a Genre of Painted Reading

One     Still Life With Book
Two     Reverse Ekphrasis
Three   Signs of the Seen

Part II: Text in Pictorial Action

Four    Reading Out
Five     Reading Double
Six       Sujet d’Art: Picasso and the Crisis of Interiority
Seven  Lexigraphs: The Reader Exiled

A Vocabulary
Notes
Index

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