The Reader

December 26, 2007
By Nikki Starrett, North Andover, MA

On Jean-Honore Fragonard’s painting “The Reader”...

I still remember the first time I beheld her.
It was a quiet afternoon, just before dusk, and I was nine and bored. I ambled into the living room, where my mother stood amidst a sea of bubble wrap and fabric samples, holding a picture frame to the wall.
“Oh, there you are,” she mumbled, a nail clutched between her teeth, “I need your help.”
My mother had been in the process of redecorating our living room for the past three months and, somehow, I always seemed to be the one who stumbled upon her at the height of a decorative frenzy.
From the doorway I shot her a look of apathy.
“Really, it will only take a sec,” she pleaded.
She positioned my hands on the frame and moved to the far side of the room, “Hmm…why don’t you look…”
I passed her the frame and took a step back. Then a few more, my eyes focusing, and then I was drowning in yellow. Nine years old, I stood basking in the golden glow of an eighteenth-century oil painting—Jean Honore Fragonard’s “The Reader”.
I struggled to take it all in—the young girl, her dress, the lusciousness of its folds. My eye glided through the golden spectrum, buttery yellow melting seamlessly into deep bronze. Warmth seemed to pulse quietly beneath the canvas. A beam of white light illuminated her face, cascading down the dress’s ruffles to pool in the pages of her book.
My initial encounter with the girl in the yellow dress was tinged with jealousy. I admired her delicately flushed skin and glossy brown hair. And she was so mature—immersed like a little adult in her book! I would curl up beneath her with my own book, half-expecting her to turn her head. I pictured her speaking to me in a sweet, French voice. I would steal glances at her between chapters, waiting for her wide brown eyes to meet mine, but her gaze would not be broken.

On rainy days I still sit, reading, in the painting’s warm ambiance. Now, the composition draws my eye not to the girl’s elegant dress, but to her face, which Fragonard has rendered in exquisite detail. The face has a certain softness, a smooth delicacy evocative of girlhood. At first glance, the subject appears a child. Yet, her youthful face is belied by her otherwise womanly figure. The rounded contours of her body, her intense concentration that I had so envied, and her neatly stylized hair all suggest sophistication. The painting demands deeper analysis.
Was it a sign of my own naiveté—that I didn’t notice this disparity before? Now I realize that Fragonard has purposefully presented a disagreement between girlish and womanly features. Fragonard has trapped his subject, whether she knows it or not, on the brink of adulthood. Flawless strokes, precise detail—ultimately, the painting reflects the artist’s attempt to alter reality. Through art, Fragonard has halted the natural progression of things. He has prevented one girl’s ascension into a world from which there is no return. And for this the painting takes on a new quality of sadness, of despair, and a new dimension—time.
Pinky dangling, the young girl is frozen in temporary oblivion; but for the rest of us, years pass. We await that looming moment in the future when we will suddenly find ourselves, simply, bereft. While my “Reader” remains forever engulfed in her tiny novel, I will move forward, savoring the last remnants of youth before they fade, inevitably, into obscurity.

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