As someone who’s abnormally fond of gloomy interiors, how could I not love Edouard John Mentha’s Maid Reading in a Library? Citing the various taxidermy, skeletal animal studies, and other curious artifacts found throughout the scene—not to mention its somewhat disheveled state—I would assume this is private library devoted to natural history. The detail in this painting is amazing, and I especially enjoy the bat specimens, glass vials, and the drab skull resting upon that particularly handsome book found on the table. I find this setting both dreary and inspiring; I’d love to walk inside this painting and make myself at home.
Whatever our maid might be reading, it certainly doesn’t appear to be one of the scientific books found upon the shelf. As a contrast to this somewhat cheerless environment, I would like to imagine she’s immersed in a piece of escapist fiction—something stirring to keep her mind occupied as she goes about her otherwise colorless workday. Perhaps she’s so engrossed in her story that she feels the need for a quick read in between each round of dusting. As the employee of a financial firm who occasionally surfs the internet when killing time between projects, I can most certainly relate; one must keep the mind stimulated if they are to maintain productivity, or at least that’s the rationale that's has always worked for me. At any rate, I can identify with Mentha’s maid, and although I appreciate the spirit of scientific inquiry, finding myself in such stodgy confines would likewise have me reaching for a work by Dickins or Dumas.
For obvious reasons, upon first viewing Maid Reading in a Library I was immediately reminded of Carl Spitzweg’s Bookworm and William McGregor Paxton's The House Maid, included below:
Carl Spitzweg – Bookworm, 1850
William McGregor Paxton – The House Maid, 1910
Observing these three works together, I must note that while Spitzweg and Paxton’s paintings might be considered more aesthetically pleasing, possessing an idealized use of light and composition, Mentha’s Maid has a more natural, candid quality, as if it were lifted from first-hand observation, lending the piece an authenticity that’s absent from the two other works. Viewing our maid in Mentha’s work, I get the sense that she might’ve been an actual person—flesh and blood like you and I—whereas our subjects in Bookworm and </i>House Maid</i> were merely concocted by the artist to exhibit those sensibilities and aesthetics which appealed to them.
Whatever the case, Maid Reading in a Library feels more real to me, and that’s part of the reason I find it so alluring, as relative to the other aforementioned works. I love Paxton's paintings for all the beauty they exhibit, but I find his maid much less captivating than the woman depicted in Mentha’s work.