Julius LeBlanc Stewart arrived in Paris in 1865 and for the following fifty years was known as the "Parisian from Philadelphia" who assured his career and reputation by depicting the grand life in Belle Époque Paris and members of Parisian high society. By the mid-1880s, the only American to receive more critical attention at the Salon Exhibitions was John Singer Sargent. Painted in 1884, Reading (La Lecture) is an example of Stewart's beautifully painted works depicting the leisurely life of society.
Stewart was influenced by his father, William Hood Stewart, a well-recognized collector and connoisseur on both sides of the Atlantic known for his passion of art. Originally from Philadelphia, the elder Stewart made his fortune in Cuba managing the family's sugar plantation which bestowed them with a great fortune. As early as the 1860s, William began collecting pictures, both American and European, and at the end of the Civil War moved his family to Paris where Mr. Stewart befriended and collected works by many contemporary artists. Among them were Spanish artists such as Eduardo Zamacoïs, Mariano Fortuny, Raimundo de Madrazo, Martin Rico and Jose Villegas. Stewart's collection of paintings was so well-known that visitors to Paris would ask to visit the collection, including American artists such as Julian Alden Weir.
As a result of his father's connections, Julius became a student of Zamacoïs in his early teens. Upon the artist's death, he entered the atelier of Jean-Léon Gérôme in May 1873 and was one of the master's "beloved pupils". By the mid-1870s, Stewart moved into his own studio next to that of Madrazo and was known to have been greatly influenced by the Spaniard in his use of a rich, vibrant palette, gestural brushwork and sumptuous scenes of young society ladies, as seen in After the Ball (Private collection) from 1877. In this painting, Stewart established his long preoccupation with the theme of "fashionable ingénues in fancy costume."
The following year, Stewart debuted at the 1878 Paris Salon with two works and by 1883 his painting, Portrait of a Lady (Private collection), was enthusiastically labeled by The Art Amateur as "the most sensational picture of all" at the Salon. Stewart furthered his reputation the next year with Five O'Clock Tea (Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Collection, New York), portraying the leisured life of American expatriates in Paris--ladies and gentlemen enjoying afternoon tea in a posh salon interior. Here Stewart showcased his range of painterly abilities in his sumptuous depictions of still lifes, ladies' luxurious costumes, the elegant domestic furnishings and the virtuosity of depicting reflective light through the salon windows.
In addition to his depictions of Belle Époque interior scenes such as Five O'Clock Tea, Stewart also excelled at painting images of outdoor leisure pursuits: picnics, lawn parties and yachting excursions, continuing his interest in depicting society figures. Painted in the same year as Five O'Clock Tea, the present painting, Reading (La Lecture) depicts a well-heeled and stylish couple seated by a pond on a summer day. As the woman reads from her book, her companion listens attentively, looking up fondly at her. The woman is fashionably dressed in a beautiful white dress with black trim and long yellow gloves. Wearing a fashionable suit topped with a boater hat with a red sash, the gentleman compliments her high style.
One of Stewart's constant themes, that of modern feminine beauty, is exemplified in the present work. A favorite motif of his was that of young women reading, such as Lady at a Window (1884, Louisiana Arts and Science Center, Baton Rouge, Louisiana), Reading Aloud (Sarah Bernhardt and Christine Nilsson), (circa 1883, Private collection) and An Enthralling Novel (1885, Private collection) presenting the privileged lives of these ladies. While conveying the romanticism of the scene, Stewart depicts in Reading (La Lecture) the modern educated lady entertaining her male companion with a passage from her book.
Stewart was well-placed within Parisian high society in both artistic and social circles. His familial wealth helped place him there, but it was his charm and artistic abilities that kept him ensconced in this world for the entirety of his career. Ulrich Hiesinger adeptly describes Stewart's oeuvre: "The paintings of Parisian high society that earned him fame as a mature artist also distinguished him from every other American, not only for their subject matter but also for the artist's intimate involvement with the life he portrayed." (Julius LeBlanc Stewart: American Painter of the Belle Époque, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1998, p. 9) The Reading (La Lecture) is a testament to this fact, exemplifying Stewart's mastery as a Belle Époque artist,to move easily within this rarified, luxurious world where folly and leisure were the pursuits of the day.