The Young Student 1894
In this genre scene, a boy’s curious, intent attitude is expressed in both his body and his face. We cannot see whether he is writing or drawing, but his posture shows that this is a moment of unique concentration. By posing his model in profile, leaning him toward his object of study, Leduc creates a space of tension between the boy’s face and the magazine. This void is crossed by the diagonal of the raised pencil, which the boy holds poised in readiness to transcribe or sketch the information he has gathered, to transform perception into knowledge.
As in Phrenology (La phrénologie), 1892, and Boy with Bread (L’enfant au pain), 1892–99, the painting investigates how to begin an artistic project, whether literary or visual. Attention, engagement, and desire are all part of the response to the task. A keen observer will recognize the artist himself in this studious adolescent, pencil in hand, bent over an illustrated article in a magazine. Is this a retroactive self-portrait? Perhaps it is, because Leduc’s first drawing lessons consisted of just this exercise, copying images provided by Jean-Baptiste-Nectaire Galipeau, his teacher at the village school.
At this early stage of his career Leduc devoted special attention to drawing, and to the rendering of matter. An outline contours the shapes. The application of pictorial matter must be sensitive to the quality of fabrics, of skin, of books. However, the subject of the study is elusive, for neither the text nor the image has yet come into focus. What Leduc depicts here is an attitude to the work of art and to its observation. The presence of a glass with brushes in the background reminds us that we are in the artist’s work environment.
For this painting, Leduc’s brother Honorius posed as directed by the artist. He next asked his sister Ozéma to serve as his model for The Reader (La liseuse), 1894, a pendant to this work that he completed in the same year. The reader is a young girl, facing the viewer this time, comfortably seated and absorbed in her book. The pages are white and unreadable by the spectator: they glow with the radiant light of knowledge. The atmosphere is calm, and the pleasure of reading can be seen in the girl’s composed face and her graceful hands that hold the book up as if to better focus her attention.