The Reading Figure in Irish Art in the Long Nineteenth Century

The Reading Figure in Irish Art in the Long Nineteenth Century

By Tricia Cusack

Anthem Nineteenth-Century Series

This book examines Irish portraits during the long nineteenth century in which figures read or hold a book. Reading fiction was cast as unmanly, while ‘silent reading’ allowed women of means to read widely and privately. Portraits of such women helped construct the idea of the ‘New Woman’ in Ireland.

Hardback, 250 Pages


February 2022

£80.00, $125.00

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About This Book

The reading figure has been a recurrent theme in Western art but especially from the nineteenth century. This book examines Irish portraits during the long nineteenth century in which people are shown reading or holding a book. It explores the different assumptions and values that were ascribed to reading and contemporary constructions of the reader. The selected pictures are by artists born, trained, or practising in Ireland. 'Irish art' is, therefore, used broadly to include work framed in some way by experience of Ireland and its history, culture, and politics. This was a time of large social and cultural shifts for Ireland, including the Great Famine and its aftermath, the growth of Irish nationalism, and the slow erosion of Anglo-Irish landlord power. It was a period of growing mass literacy, and also a time when books and other reading, including Irish novels, were often published in London. Many of the artists and sitters discussed were Anglo-Irish Protestants, a number of whom had Irish nationalist sympathies.

Reading, especially the reading of fiction, was not valued as a manly occupation. Both imperial and nationalist ideologues fostered dominant notions of manliness that depended on the assumption of an aggressive masculine nature checked by self-management. Portraits of male subjects with a book usually follow the tradition of accessories functioning as professional or status symbols. Nonetheless, some men are depicted reading and failing to embody a manly attitude. 

A prevalent patriarchal ideology framed women as inferior to men in both physical and intellectual power. Yet this book argues that nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Dublin was a space of special creativity for women, at least among those from the privileged classes. The introduction of ‘silent reading’, alongside the spread of the novel, allowed such women to engage privately with a new range of imaginative and intellectual reading materials, while silent reading also offered seclusion from patriarchal surveillance. Visual images of women as serious readers contradicted common constructions of women as consumers of lightweight romances, or as an object for the male gaze. It is contended that such images drew on and contributed to the emergence of the ‘New Woman’ in Ireland.


‘Cusack’s book draws the reader into an imaginary world of readers, contextualizing representations of mostly women readers through larger concepts of class, cultural, and gender identities in modern Ireland. With a prevalence of women artists representing female sitters, Cusack probes aesthetic and iconographic strategies for representing interiorized thought while deflecting penetrability in the era of the New Woman.’ — Dr. Emily Burns, Auburn University, US

‘In this highly original study, Tricia Cusack argues that the reading figure in art offers a lens through which to apprehend politics at a variety of levels, from the micro-politics of gender to public suffrage agitation, and offers vivid evidence of the emergence of the “New Woman” in sections of Irish society. Reading evidence with creativity and care, and developing valuable typologies of reading figures in Irish art, Cusack argues persuasively for the emergence of a distinctive Irish portraiture tradition over the long nineteenth century, and for treating it as both an index and builder of important gendered identities in the Irish context.’ — Kevin James, University of Guelph, Canada

This engaging and erudite volume fizzes with ideas and originality and elsewhere: Cusack's engaging style makes light work of dense material, while never compromising on erudition, in a cohesive overview that integrates histories of literature and visual art by Emer McGarry, in Irish Arts Review, Summer (June-August 2022), pp. 116-117.

Author Information

Tricia Cusack taught at the University of Birmingham, Cardiff Metropolitan University, and the Open University. Her research focuses on how visual art embodies ideas about social, cultural, and national identities.


Anthem Nineteenth-Century Series

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