Category Archives: books in art


painting of an island close to shore

The island (1900–01) by Edvard Munch. Painting held in a private collection. Public domain.

A new word for a new time? Well, a new meaning for an old word … The word ‘self-isolation’ is right now being used specifically to mean ‘the act of isolating oneself to avoid infecting or being infected by the novel coronavirus’.

‘Self-isolation’ is a compound word consisting of the prefix ‘self-‘ and the noun ‘isolation’. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), in the 1750s, English borrowed the French word isolé as an adjective. At first, it was left unchanged but gradually it was changed to ‘isolated’. The French isolé was itself borrowed from the Italian word isolato, the past participle of the verb isolare, which was derived from the noun isola, which in turn was derived from the classical Latin noun insula, ‘island’. Either also borrowed from French or back-formed from ‘isolated’, the verb ‘isolate’ and the noun ‘isolation’ were then formed as well.

sick girl in bed with book

The sick girl (1882) by Michael Ancher. Painting held in Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen, Denmark. Public domain.

blue book, red pencil

spilliaert blue sketchbook 1907

Self-portrait with blue sketchbook (1907) by Léon Spilliaert. Painting held in Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Antwerpen, Belgium. Public domain.

spilliaert red pencil 1908

Self-portrait with red pencil (1908) by Léon Spilliaert. Painting held in Mu.ZEE in Oostende, Belgium. Public domain.

holiday in mentone

Conder_A holiday at Mentone_1888

A holiday at Mentone (1888) by Charles Conder. Painting held in the Art Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide, Australia. Public domain.

It still feels like summer. Temperatures still easily reach into the thirties, there’s no rain, and the lawn looks the driest I’ve seen it since we moved here two and a half years ago. Here is Mentone, close to the bay and the beach. I’m not a beachgoer, but I love that the afternoon sea breeze and the smell of salty seaweed reaches our garden and, when the weather cools down, I enjoy a brisk walk along the bay. Since we’ve moved here, I haven’t wanted to go away — living here feels like enough of a holiday.

Charles Conder’s painting A holiday in Mentone is said to be ‘the first to capture the intensity and brilliance of Australian light’. It is this light and — in summer — the accompanying heat that keeps me indoors on a day like today.

When Conder was painting here, Mentone had not long become more accessible from Melbourne — the railway had opened in December 1881. And in 1884, to encourage more visitors and residents, the sea baths had opened (visible on the right in the painting).

The lady in the foreground of the painting is reading a magazine with a pink cover (and so was the gentleman who is having a nap below the footbridge), apparently a copy of The Bulletin. This was a controversial (to say the least) weekly publication that had been in existence since 31 January 1880 and that, by the time Conder was busy painting on Mentone beach, was taking contributions from its readership. More and more, it published early work of people who would become Australia’s literary and artistic figures of their time — people like Henry Lawson, Banjo Patterson, Miles Franklin and Norman Lindsay. In October 1887, The Bulletin published Henry Lawson’s first published poem, ‘A Song of the Republic’, and in December 1888, it would publish his first story, ‘His Father’s Mate’. In December 1889, it would publish Banjo Patterson’s ‘Clancy of the Overflow’, followed in 1890 by  ‘The Man from Snowy River’.

Apart from poems, short stories and cartoons, The Bulletin ran political and business news and a page of literary gossip and opinion. Because of its romantic portrayal of outback life, it attracted a strong readership in the outback and became known as the ‘Bushman’s Bible’. From 1908 onwards, the magazine became gradually more conservative and less popular. It lingered on until 2008.


summer reading


Roses (1893) by PS Krøyer. Painting held in Skagens Museum in Skagen, Denmark. Public domain.

Photograph from around the time of the painting above, showing PS Krøyer in the garden in Skagen with his wife, Marie, and their dog, Rap. Public domain.

a book with a green cover

painting of a woman in red-and-white dress sitting in front of a window reading a green book

Woman reading (1913) by Rik Wouters. Painting held in the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Antwerpen, Belgium. Public domain.

I used to work in a bookshop. One day, a young woman came in and said, ‘I’m looking for a book with a green cover …’. She knew neither author nor title.

At another occasion, in another bookshop, a regular customer came past one day and said, ‘I’m looking for a book’. She paused — and I said, ‘You’re in the right place’. She laughed.


stages of reading


Woman reading (1940) by Chaïm Soutine. Painting held in the Centre Pompidou in Paris, France. Public domain.

Soutine_Woman reading_1937

Woman reading (c. 1937) by Chaïm Soutine. Painting held in a private collection. Public domain.

Soutine woman asleep over book 1937

Woman asleep with a book (c. 1937) by Chaïm Soutine. Painting held in a private collection. Public domain.