Jackson, Billy Morrow
Oil on Masonite
47 1/4 x 71 1/4 inches
Wichita Art Museum, Museum purchase with funds donated by Mr. and Mrs. Donald C. Slawson
Not Currently on Display
About the Artwork
Billy Morrow Jackson is a master of contemporary American realism. He was born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1926, studied at Washington University, the University of Illinois and in Mexico, and beginning in 1954 he was on the teaching faculty of the University of Illinois as professor of art until his retirement in 1987. His works have been exhibited widely in the United States and abroad, and he is represented in major public and private collections throughout the country.
This work, titled Reading, was executed in 1980 and is unquestionably one of Jackson’s most accomplished paintings. What we see here is essentially the poetry of light, for the painting is virtually flooded with brightness and with life; understandably one might figuratively assert that it was painted with colored light rather than with oil pigments.
In concept, Reading is essentially symmetrical and at first glance would appear to be a self-contained and tranquil composition portraying a teenage girl comfortably enclosed within an architectural space where she sits alone quietly and undisturbed on a stairway step reading a book. Closer observation, however, reveals an extremely complex composition in which certain visual ambiguities are deliberately introduced that arouse our curiosity and divert our attention from the literally stated subject to the abstract qualities of the painting itself. Examples are the greatly exaggerated depth of the central hallway and the landscape view beyond, the open door near the end of the hallway, the massive hall staircase which carries the eye upward, and the threshold in the extreme left foreground through which we gain a glimpse of still another stairway, this time leading downward. Yet the composition is completely unified by virtue of an all-pervasive light, flooding the space, and appearing in broad areas of brightness as well as in flickering patterns of multiple and overlapping reflections that vary in shape, size, color and intensity. Of special interest are delicate tonal nuances of cool light reflected on the ceiling above the hallway and originating from the open hallway window. Equally noteworthy are the exquisite reflections of warm yellow light on the wall in the upper right-hand corner of the painting. Indeed those warm reflections echo the light that penetrates the stair windows above the young girl, and the encompassing glow effectively links areas of the composition that are passive with those that are more active, establishing an emphatic unity within the total composition.
An interesting aspect of this work is its title, Reading. For not only does the term reading apply to the portrayed subject who is shown reading the language of the book held on her lap but also to the spectator who must “read” the formal language of the painting itself in order to derive aesthetic appreciation from that painting.