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Creator:
William Henry Hunt, 1790–1864, British
Title:

A Lady Reading

Additional Title(s):

A Lady Reading, called Mrs. William Hunt

Date:
ca. 1835
Medium:
Watercolor and gouache over graphite on moderately thick, slightly textured, cream wove paper
Dimensions:
Contemporary drawn border: 11 1/2 x 8 inches (29.2 x 20.3 cm) and Sheet: 11 1/4 x 7 5/8 inches (28.6 x 19.4 cm)
Credit Line:
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Copyright Status:
Public Domain
Accession Number:
B1975.3.862
Classification:
Drawings & Watercolors
Collection:
Prints and Drawings
Subject Terms:
book | drapes | furniture | genre subject | home | lady | leisure | middle-class | portrait | reading | rug | settee | textures | wife | window | woman
Associated People:
Hunt, Sarah (née Holloway) (1812-1857), wife of William Henry Hunt (1790–1864)
Access:
View by request in the Study Room [Request]
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Link:
https://collections.britishart.yale.edu/catalog/tms:10945
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In the 1820s and 1830s William Henry Hunt's watercolors of rustic figures, often sentimental or humorous in character, were extremely popular. This subject of a lady reading denotes a more genteel prosperity. The reader has been identified as the painter's wife. Hunt's careful rendering of textures celebrates the material comforts of the middle-class home and invites his own watercolor to be seen as the natural accompaniment to such refined surroundings.

Gallery label for Great British Watercolors from the Paul Mellon Collection at the Yale Center for British Art (Yale Center for British Art, 2008-06-09 - 2008-08-17)
A Lady Reading is perhaps the watercolor of that name exhibited with the Society of Painters in Water-Colours in 1835 and represents Hunt's interest in the domestic interior. In the early 1820s Hunt began producing a series of exquisite watercolors for the Earl of Essex and the Duke of Devonshire, recording the interiors of their several houses. The shift from the aristocratic to the middle-class interior in A Lady Reading reflects Hunt's own desire to move from a narrow elite audience to a broader public in the annual exhibitions. Its vision of domestic propriety also contrasted to the kind of speculative exhibition watercolors that Hunt had first gained notoriety for painting. Those had tended to be figurative works but were often humorous visions of proletarian life in the tradition of the eighteenth-century fancy picture. One critic fulminated against Hunt and his patrons in 1831: "We marvel how nobleman and gentleman can collect pictures of grinning urchins, studies of pugs, salt jars, and such Tom-foolery. This certainly is the lowest ebb and prostitution of art." By contrast, A Lady Reading depicts a quiet bourgeois interior, whose subject has sometimes been taken for Hunt's own wife, Sarah, who was just twenty-three at the time. The emphasis in this watercolor is not so much on the woman reading as on the range of material objects that denote genteel prosperity. The lady sits on a velvet-covered Regency sofa; her feet rest on a deep pile, wall-to-wall carpet; and the book implies access to an improving home library. Hunt's careful rendering of textures, made possible by the addition of gouache to his colors, celebrates the material comforts of the middle-class home and invites his own watercolor to be seen as the natural accompaniment to such refined surroundings: an equally carefully wrought objet de vertu. John Ruskin certainly thought Hunt's work was ideal for this purpose when he declared: there was indeed no quality in the bright little watercolors which could look other than pert in ghostly corridors, and petty in halls of state; but they gave an unquestionable tone of liberal-mindedness to a suburban villa, and were the cheerfulest possible decorations for a moderate-sized breakfast-parlour opening on a nicely mown-lawn.

Matthew Hargraves

Hargraves, Matthew, and Scott Wilcox. Great British Watercolors: from the Paul Mellon collection. New Haven: Yale Center for British Art, 2008, p. 154, no. 66

Great British Watercolors from the Paul Mellon Collection at the Yale Center for British Art (Yale Center for British Art, 2008-06-09 - 2008-08-17) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Great British Watercolors from the Paul Mellon Collection at the Yale Center for British Art (The State Hermitage Museum, 2007-10-23 - 2008-01-13) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Great British Watercolors from the Paul Mellon Collection at the Yale Center for British Art (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 2007-07-11 - 2007-09-30) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Pleasures and Pastimes (Yale Center for British Art, 1990-02-21 - 1990-04-29) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Elisabeth Fairman, Pleasures and pastimes, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut, 1990, p. 10, no. 40, DA485 F25 1990 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Yale Center for British Art, Great British watercolors : from the Paul Mellon Collection, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2007, pp. 154-56, no. 66, ND1928 .Y35 2007 (LC)+ Oversize (YCBA) [YCBA]


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