Artist Samantha Hahn has rendered everything from designer runway looks to prettily packaged beauty products in her soft, signature watercolors; now, she’s turning her attention—and her paintbrush—toward literature’s most celebrated ladies. Hahn’s new book Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction’s Most Beloved Heroines, out today, immortalizes 50 characters ranging from The Great Gatsby‘s Daisy Buchanan to Hamlet‘s Ophelia in stunning illustration. Each portrait also features a carefully-chosen, hand-lettered quote from each character’s respective literary work—and to hear Hahn tell it, the task of selecting which women were worthy of featuring was a true labor of love. Click through above to preview 11 of the book’s most beautiful portraits (including several Lucky exclusives that have never been seen elsewhere!); then, read on to learn how the idea for Well-Read Women came about, what it was like for the artist to "befriend" the likes of Clarissa Dalloway and Les Mis‘ Cosette and which characters Hahn fought to include in her book—but couldn’t.
Lucky: How did you go about picking the women to feature in your book? What sort of criteria did you use?
Samantha Hahn: The idea for the book followed a solo show of mine, for which I created illustrations of various incarnations of Helen of Troy. I was fascinated by the idea of her beauty having so much power, and that lead me to illustrate a series of vignettes for the show—including my favorite literary characters. At the opening, I noticed people admiring and discussing the portraits and sharing their feelings about their favorite character, and their memories of when they first read her. It was interesting to delineate the characters from their source and think about them as people. The more I thought about it the more I concluded how similar they are to each other and how relatable they are to us, even today. They were girls and women trying to find their voice, find love and navigate their culture. To choose the characters I portrayed in this book, I cast my net across the Western canon, and a bit beyond. Some of these stories were new to me and some were treasured favorites. Now each of these characters is as familiar to me as a close friend. They come from novels, plays and poetry, and each is, in her own way, profound. I learned so much about myself from getting to know each of them.
Is there anyone you wished you’d included, but didn’t (or couldn’t)?
I could not include Scout Finch from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird due to a permissions issue. This was really soul-crushing, as she is one of my favorite female characters of all time and to me an essential part of the book. Franny Glass from Franny and Zooey by J.D Salinger and Celie from The Color Purple by Alice Walker were also not included, because the authors never allowed excerpts to be printed. Actually, the length of the quotes I chose from each book are considered ‘fair use’—but my publisher (Chronicle) and I decided to ask for permissions on anything published after 1923 as a courtesy. I illustrated Jadis the White Witch from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S Lewis, but could only include 50 characters and decided to cut her in favor of some more beloved ones.
Which portrait in the book is your personal favorite, and why?
Oh, it’s so very hard to choose. I love Edna Pontellier from The Awakening by Kate Chopin because her situation resonates with me. I feel so lucky to be able to be an artist, author, wife, mother and have a voice in the world, express myself freely and make my own choices. Throughout all of these stories these characters are universal archetypes and uniquely flawed individuals all at once. Every so often, an author creates this kind of masterpiece, a character of dazzling originality and truth that will resonate with readers for all time. We sympathize with her, we admire her, we hate her, we want to be her. I also loved illustrating the Jazz Age characters: Daisy Buchanan, Brett Ashley, Clarissa Dalloway, Lorelei Lee and Nora Charles. That era was so beautiful and it was so much fun portraying it through these characters.
Pick up your own copy of Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction’s Most Beloved Heroines here! And if you’re in the NYC area on September 19, stop by Rizzoli Bookstore to have your copy signed by the artist herself. More event info here.