George Cochran Lambdin - Girl Reading
George Cochran Lambdin (1830-1896), American
Girl Reading, 1872
OIL ON CANVAS, 29 ½ x 25 inches
Gift of Horace Fairbanks
Among the Athenaeum's masterworks, George Cochran Lambdin's Girl Reading stands out for its sensitivity of handling and composition, colorism, and layered symbolism. The subject, a young woman at leisure by an open window, was a common enough theme during the period, but is substantively modified and embellished in Lambdin's variant. The conventional woman-at-the-window scene symbolizes the subject's imagination traveling beyond her domestic environment into the world outside, balancing hope and frustrated longing. To that basic motif, Lambdin has added a scrupulously rendered calla lily framed by the window sill suggesting more specific and poetic meaning. The lily's undulating, unfurling leaves and pure white flower echo the girl's dress and are a metaphor for growth and intellectual awakening. The most arresting repeated form in Lambdin’s composition is the suspended arc of the lily's flower and the counterbalancing curve of the girl's left hand and finger touching the top of her book. At heart a gentle and moderately patronizing allegory of feminine youth and beauty, Lambdin’s painting nevertheless conveys the potential of reading to enlighten and liberate, an outstanding moral in the context of the Athenaeum.
Lambdin began his career, like many painters of the day, as a portraitist in his native Philadelphia. Trained for two years in Europe during the mid-15os, Lambdin’s mature art conveyed his awareness of contemporary stylistic developments abroad as well as the influence of earlier European, particularly Dutch, masters. By the 1870's, he had largely ceased to paint the scenes of daily life upon which he had established his reputation and concentrated instead on still life painting, particularly of the roses that grew in his garden in Germantown, Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia. The symbolism of flowers was much better known in the nineteenth century than it is today. Viewers would have immediately recognized the lily in Lambdin’s Girl Reading as an embodiment of purity, a meaning that it inherited from its frequent appearance in European religious art since the Renaissance. Lambdin would have been personally familiar with that symbolic tradition from his training abroad.