Pierre Puvis de Chavannes was one of the greatest muralists of the latter nineteenth century, described by Vincent van Gogh as a 'visionary' whose work was 'superb' and 'perfect' (V. van Gogh, The Complete Letters, tr. by J. van Gogh Bonger and D. de Dood, 3 vols, Greenwich, 1958). His murals still decorate public buildings such as the Panthéon and the Sorbonne in Paris and the musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon.
La liseuse is representative of the medium, subject matter, and style that marked the artistic output of Puvis de Chavannes during the 1880s. The picture probably dates from 1885-1887, during the decade when he favoured the medium of pastel, applying it to canvas to create a textured surface and an opaque, matt finish that is reminiscent of the frescoes that had established his reputation.
The Musée Paul Dupuy in Toulouse includes a preliminary drawing for the pastel (inv.no. 131), and indeed the subject of a solitary figure reading is one that was recurring in the artist's oeuvre. Absorbed in her book, avoiding the viewer's gaze, the introspective reader suggests a metaphysical distance from the viewer. This effect is further enhanced by the sculptural quality of the solid, white body.
However, the model's red hair is a striking contrast to this marmoreal form and La liseuse also reflects the 'naturalist' tendency in the work of Puvis de Chavannes. He instructed his models to avoid posing in the manner typical of academic painting, and in the present pastel the model slouches over her book, studiously avoiding a pose.
We would like to thank Aimée Brown Price for her kind assistance in cataloguing, and for confirming the authenticity of the present lot.