Oblivious to the world - between reading & sleeping

I had never really looked at it before – at this painting of an old woman reading, by a certain Cornelis Bisschop. Well, I had certainly glanced over it before – labelling it as the work of a minor Dutch master of the Golden Age before moving on. The painting shows a rather darkish interior with clair-obscur contrasts - light focused on the woman reading and on some (possibly symbolic) objects while the rest of the interior is receding in darkish tones. All typical artifices indeed of Dutch 17th C art.

But then, what made me look so intently this time? Possibly I had now felt attracted to the look of concentration on the woman’s face , and to the way she sat there, reading. Because she sat there, not in any coquettish nor devout reading pose, but rather with the true bearing of one who is absorbed in her reading – with the mixture of corporal nonchalance and dignity bestowed on those intensely engaged in the life of the mind. And then there were the books – not just any books it seemed, not the family-bible either. No, these books were worn and weighty, filled with the wisdom of ages.

There are of course quite a lot of reading women to be seen in art history – what with all those Annunciations (the Virgin Mary looking up from her book, startled, when the divine messenger rushes in) and all those Saint Barbaras reading. But in those paintings the atmosphere is limpid and tranquil, the women are devout and the books undoubtedly holy. Thus they display none of the intense curiosity and concentration, none of the superior nonchalance that had struck me in this old Dutch woman’s bearing.

However, on closer inspection of the objects in this particular painting, I had to admit that the impression of active concentration was belied by the objects’ symbolism. The sculpted head on the wall, with the head drowsily inclined , ... that must be Hypnos (the God of sleep). And what’s with that key, so prominently hanging on the wall ... a key to the kingdom of sleep?

In the same room I was startled to see yet another painting with a similar iconography – a woman with a book on her lap, other worn books piled on a table, a key on the wall. But this woman was ungraciously snoring, her mouth slightly open. So it was only a superficial similarity – gone were the look of concentration, gone the dignified posture of reading which had so enchanted me.

But browsing on the web, I moreover learned that the subject of a woman-falling-asleep- with-a-book-on-her-lap is something of a standing theme in 17th C Dutch genre-painting.

So was my fascination for this particular painting a sorry case of hineininterpretierung? Was I projecting a longed for mood of concentration and dignified wisdom in a painting that merely shows a woman-nodding-off-above-her-book? And then this painting would not be a rare and happy celebration of the intent absorption of the reader, oblivious to the world?