French by birth and upbringing, Roussel moved to London after his first marriage in 1870. He was a close friend and pupil of Whistler and shared his love of Japanese art, evident here not only in the elegant kimono, casually draped over the folding chair, but in the overall treatment of space. The young girl is Hetty Pettigrew (1867-1953) who was the artist's favourite model and also posed, along with her sisters Rose and Lily, for Millais and Whistler. She met Roussel in 1884 and not only became his mistress but gave birth to his daughter. She continued to sit for him until he re-married in 1914.
In its frank nudity, flattening of forms and strong light-dark contrasts, The Reading Girl pays tribute to Edouard Manet's (1832-83) boldly subversive masterpiece, Olympia of 1863. But Roussel combines Manet's modernism with careful draughtsmanship and a more traditional classicism that looks back to J.A.D. Ingres (1780-1867). On the other hand, the subject is not presented as a classical Venus, but rather as a robust and healthy young woman, with a taste for current fashion. The discarded kimono, the model's elegant hairstyle and the folding campaign chair, are evidence of aesthetic preoccupations which align Roussel with such artists as Sir Frederic Leighton and the English Aesthetic movement. The critic Frederick Wedmore was impressed by the model's firm and youthful figure and compared the picture with 'the most health-suggesting, health-breathing of Courbets, with the most rosily robust of Caro Delvaille's (Le Sommeil fleuri), with the dreamiest Henner, with the slimmest and least material of Raphael Collin's (Floréal)' (Frederick Wedmore, 'Théodore Roussel', The Art Journal, 1909, p.184).
During the 1880s British art was moving away from an elevated, Neo-Classical interpretation of the nude towards a new naturalism, regarded as a threat to moral standards. Roussel's picture was exhibited at the New English Art Club in April 1887 and caused a mild scandal. The critic for the Spectator wrote: 'Our imagination fails to conceive any adequate reason for a picture of this sort. It is realism of the worst kind, the artist's eye seeing only the vulgar outside of his model, and reproducing that callously and brutally. No human being, we should imagine, could take any pleasure in such a picture as this; it is a degradation of Art' (Spectator, 16 April 1887).
Kenneth McConkey, British Impressionism, London 1989, p.57, reproduced p.50, in colour.
8 December 2000