Who is the reader, and why did Richter paint her?
SFX: Quiet piano music
The woman in this painting is so quiet, I can’t help whispering. She has such an inner stillness, such concentration. She’s bathed in light, like a classic Vermeer painting. It touches her softly on her hair, her ear, the back of her neck. This is Sabine Moritz-Richter, who was Gerhard Richter’s wife at the time this was made. He painted it from a picture he took of her when they first fell in love. You can sense his affection in the way he softly painted every little detail: like the way the sunlight whites out part of her necklace, or the tiny hairs that curl beneath her ponytail. You could say this is a romantic painting. And yet, Richter observes her from a distance. And he didn’t title the work “Sabine.” He called it Lesende, or “reader.” Her image captivated him—first and foremost, as a painter. What its meaning may be, he keeps to himself. He once said, “…photographs, private ones and others, keep appearing that fascinate me so much that I want to paint them. And sometimes the real meaning these images have for me only becomes apparent later.”
This oil painting, made by Gerhard Richter in 1994, is called Lesende (Reader). It is a portrait of a woman standing in profile, deeply absorbed in the pages of a magazine. The linen canvas is a little over 2 feet tall and 3 feet wide. It is one of Richter’s hallmark ”blur” paintings, based on a photograph.
This is a cozy, interior scene. A light-haired Caucasian woman is the focus of the painting. She is shown from the shoulders up. Golden light glints off of her hair and spills across the back of her neck. The image feels sentimental and intimate. She is wearing a scoop-necked, chocolate brown shirt that leaves her neck exposed. She wears casual, everyday jewelry – a gold necklace and modest hoop earrings. Her blonde hair is pulled back into a short ponytail and clipped in place with a black bow. Wisps of hair have slipped out of her clip and hang by her left ear. Her thumb holds the magazine in place as she reads.
On the left side of the canvas in the background, a door to another room is visible in the shadows. The walls are painted a deep burgundy.
To make a painting like this, Richter starts with a photograph he’s either found or taken himself. He re-creates the image exactly in oil paint, taking his color palette directly from the photograph. While the paint is still wet, he uses a soft brush to lightly smear the image. The blurring in this picture is most evident at the top of the woman’s head, where the strands of her blonde hair meld together, and in the magazine, where we can’t make out what’s written on the page. The blur gives the overall scene a hazy, soft focus, and communicates a quiet serenity.
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