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image icon 'The musician', 1901

'The musician', 1901
Art Gallery of South Australia


This is a very large watercolour (105.7 cm x 100.5 cm) painted in 1901 by William Blamire Young (1862-1935). It shows a music lesson in progress, with two youths playing a piano in the presence of a music teacher. The composition has been arranged so that the teacher and the piano occupy most of the image, with the youths' heads being squeezed into the top left of the image. The foreground is dominated by a mass of black, representing the bulk of the teacher and the piano. With his head in one hand, the musician gazes out at the viewer with a somewhat quizzical expression. A poem appears just below his pointing right hand, titled 'Sunt lachrymae rerum', which, loosely translated, means: 'God, the inherent sadness of things'. Its verse reads: 'His leaf has perished in the green, In narrow ways his life has run, The world which credits what is done Is cold to all that might have been'.

Educational value

This resource is useful because it:

  • is an entertaining and visually striking work by Young, who is regarded as one of Australia's best watercolourists - 'The musician', and a similar watercolour titled 'Chaucer', are often referred to as among his finest works; both use the same compositional format of an inscription located to one side, dominated by large graphic images
  • demonstrates, through its bold massing of darks and lights, and self-conscious play of shapes and exchanges of bright colours, influences from the paintings of James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) and Japanese 'ukiyo-e' prints (pronounced oo-kee-oh-eh and meaning 'pictures of the floating world')
  • shows evidence of the artist's skilful and inventive use of the watercolour medium - the use of solid blacks for the teacher's suit and the piano provides an effective contrast to the transparent colour washes used for the flooring and wall (behind the feet of the man and the legs of the piano); so too does the broad treatment of the boys' faces contrast with the more detailed landscape that can be seen in the window over the musician's shoulder
  • demonstrates an inventive use of shapes - Young's enthusiasm for this is evident in the positive and negative shapes created by the overlaps of feet and piano pedal structure; it has been said that the theatre was never far away in Young's images and this is usually reflected in the way his principal characters (like the music teacher in this work) look larger than life
  • reflects the significant influence of poster art on international art in the late 19th century - the art poster developed from advertising posters which began to appear in Europe and England in the later part of the 19th century; among the many artists who were attracted to the possibilities of making dynamic posters, which became an 'art for the streets', was French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), whose bold simplified designs associated with his dance hall posters (particularly for 'Moulin Rouge' productions) inspired many artists to adopt similar approaches to the use of colour, shape and text
  • has been described as a Melbourne tribute to the British art nouveau poster designers known as the Beggarstaff Brothers (James Ferrier Pryde (1866-1941) and William Nicholson (1872-1949)), with whom Young worked for a while in London - the Brothers were the first to design posters in which the images were large and simplified and offset by text that had been reduced to a minimum
  • references a particular Australian connection to international poster art - when Young returned to Melbourne from England in 1896, he formed a cooperative group to produce commercial posters with another artist, Harry Weston; this resulted in the production of a series of art nouveau designs, which effectively launched poster art throughout Australia; in 1897, a selection of international and Australian posters was included in the Society of Artists annual exhibition in Sydney, which had widespread impact; the prologue in the catalogue to this exhibition stressed the importance of poster design 'in teaching the alphabet of art'
  • communicates through humour the idea that life's promises are not always fulfilled - its humour also gives an insight through into the workings of an artist's mind; Young regarded art as 'emotional, not precise; a joy, a refuge, a compensation'.