Girl Reading

Edmund C. Tarbell (American, 1862–1938)


81.91 x 72.39 cm (32 1/4 x 28 1/2 in.)

Accession Number


Medium or Technique

Oil on canvas

On View

Joseph P. and Anne B. Pellegrino Gallery (Gallery 223)





In a 1921 letter to MFA director Arthur Fairbanks, Tarbell wrote of Girl Reading: “I think it the best single figure I ever painted.”[1]Executed in 1909, the work illustrates Tarbell’s return to a figural style reminiscent of his early art training in both Boston and Paris, and serves as a pivotal work in his early-twentieth-century oeuvre. The smooth application of paint, muted tones, and soft, glowing light link the painting to works by close friends William Merritt Chase [2007.7] and Joseph DeCamp [33.532], and also recall the much-admired seventeenth-century Spanish painter Diego Velázquez [], while the asymmetrical placement of objects and sitter suggests Tarbell’s interest in the format of Japanese prints.
The natural light seeping in through the window at the extreme right seems almost holy, transforming the model into a kind of modern Madonna: “Natural daylight was one of the most sacred objects in Tarbell’s artistic religion.”[2]The painting’s quiet, contemplative subject and subtle harmonies of light and color also reveal Tarbell’s admiration for interiors by the seventeenth-century Dutch masters Johannes Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch [03.607]. Vermeer, in particular, had become increasingly popular with collectors and scholars alike; fellow Boston painter and Museum School teacher Philip Hale would publish the first American monograph on the artist in 1913. In it, Hale wrote: “Mr. Edmund C. Tarbell’s work shows such skill in design and technique that one instinctively thinks of Dutch art and of Vermeer in particular when seeing it,” adding, “Mr. Tarbell’s work shows the effect of the Impressionistic movement when grafted on good old Dutch stock.”[3]De Hooch’s influence on Tarbell’s interiors is perhaps even more notable than Vermeer’s; Tarbell himself remarked that setting was primary and story secondary for de Hooch, and he emulated frequently de Hooch’s use of doors opening into other rooms, figures silhouetted in passageways, and light streaming in from one area to another. [4] Tarbell’s admiration for Dutch art extended to his choice of frames, and he commissioned from the Boston firm Foster Brothers a hand-made one specifically for Girl Reading, decorated with geometric checkered and rippled patterns taken directly from old Dutch frames.

Tarbell used light and atmosphere not to tell a story but to paint elegant subjects with technical precision, stating once that “art should try to render the beauty of the thing unseen.”[5]Boston School artists often painted women in graceful interiors, and some scholars have criticized their works as anti-modern and anti-feminist. [6]The sitter for Girl Reading, Charlotte West, is depicted, however, as a flesh-and-blood woman in a contemporary setting, dressed in modern clothing, and actively engaged in her book. West was one of Tarbell’s favorite models and one of the few who was not a family member. She also posed for his colleague, Museum School sculptor Bela Pratt [48.350], which sometimes created a conflict for the two artists. According to West’s letters, Pratt once chastised Tarbell for working their model too hard and insisted that she would be too tired to give Pratt the pristine look he sought. As a result of the sculptor’s proprietary attitude, West did not sit for Tarbell as often as he would have liked.[7]

West could have posed for Girl Reading either in Boston or in New Castle, New Hampshire, where Tarbell’s family spent summers. West had made the short train trip from Boston to New Castle during September and October of 1907 to pose for Preparing for the Matinee (Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indiana). The stark setting for Girl Reading resembles the bare walls of the New Hampshire studio, visible in a 1907 photo of West and Tarbell at work on the Indianapolis painting. [8]Tarbell’s choice of studio props—the gate-leg table, ladder-back chair, and gilded round mirror—suggest his New England roots and illustrate his awareness of the current popularity of Colonial Revival furniture in home decorating. Tarbell may have purchased these antiques with his friend Frank Weston Benson [1979.615] in Salem, Massachusetts; records show that the two painters each owned several gate-leg tables.[9]

Although unfinished at the time, the artist included Girl Reading in the March 1909 “Twelfth Annual Exhibition—Ten American Painters” at New York’s Montross Gallery. One reviewer noted that the painting showed tremendous growth in Tarbell’s work: “in color this latest canvas is more beautiful than any of its predecessors…the tones are very quiet, but they seem richer and deeper.”[10]The MFA purchased the painting directly from Tarbell shortly thereafter.

1. Edmund Tarbell to Arthur Fairbanks, December 18, 1921, curatorial files, Department of Art of the Americas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
2. Erica E. Hirshler, “‘Good and Beautiful Work’: Edmund C. Tarbell and the Arts and Crafts Movement,” in Impressionism Transformed: The Paintings of Edmund C. Tarbell, by Susan Strickler, Linda J. Docherty, and Erica E. Hirshler, exh. cat. (Manchester, N.H.: Currier Gallery of Art, 2001), 75.
3. Philip Hale, Jan Vermeer of Delft (Boston: Small and Maynard, 1913), 229–31.
4. Hirshler, “‘Good and Beautiful Work,’” 80.
5. Tarbell quoted in Hirshler, “‘Good and Beautiful Work,’”, 74.
6. See, for example, Patricia Hills, Turn-of-the-Century America (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1977), 74, and Bernice Kramer Leader, “The Boston Lady as a Work of Art: Paintings by the Boston School at the Turn of the Century” (PhD diss., Columbia University, 1980), 86, 245.
7. Charlotte Barton West letters, 1904–7, roll 75, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
8. Susan Strickler, “A Life that Is Art: Edmund C. Tarbell in New Castle,” in Strickler et al., Impressionism Transformed, 2001, 137.
9. Patricia Jobe Pierce, Edmund C. Tarbell and the Boston School of Painting, 1889–1980 (Hingham, Mass.: Pierce Galleries, 1980), 87.
10. “Art Exhibitions: New Pictures by The Ten American Painters,”New York Daily Tribune, March 20, 1909, 7, col. 1.

Victoria Ross


Lower right: Tarbell


1909, sold by the artist to the MFA for $4,500. (Accession Date: March 18, 1909)

Credit Line

The Hayden Collection—Charles Henry Hayden Fund