A girl in a yellow dress sits on the sofa reading. She is propped up against a big and comfortable cushion, while resting her left arm on a wooden armrest. Her neatly combed hair is tied with a purple ribbon and her gaze is fixed on her book, which she holds in her right hand. Who is the girl? What book attracts her so much?
“A Young Girl Reading” is one of Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s most well-known paintings. At the time the painting was created, the lifestyle of French aristocrats had become so extravagant that intelligence and cultured life was stressed as important. Fragonard was popular with the aristocrats with his secular and sensual paintings, but perhaps in this painting he wanted to convey a moral message with “reading” as a theme. The background of the girl is a stark contrast to the colorful dress worn by the girl. The small book read by the girl appears to be a social satire such as Voltaire’s Candide, which was widely popular among the elites at that time.
The identify of the girl was only recently known. This painting is part of Fragonard’s 18 series titled “fantasy characters,” which the painter created when he was 37, and the sketches were recently found in 2012. The drawing featured portraits of 18 people sketched in the size of a thumb, a nun, singer, author, musical performer, actor, admiral and noblewoman. The girl is the first one among the sketches. What is noticeable is that all the other people bear the names of the people who commissioned the painting, except for the girl. In other words, unlike the other sketches, only the girl is a true character of fantasy, created purely out of the painter’s imagination.
“Fantasy” describes a supernatural and unrealistic phenomenon. Perhaps back then, in an age of extravagance and hedonism, an intellectual absorbed in a book might have indeed appeared as a character of fantasy. A society that does not read books might as well be a dead society. Maybe this is why reading is encouraged to this day.