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image icon 'Young woman holding a book', 1853

'Young woman holding a book', 1853
Art Gallery of South Australia


This is a small but striking pencil drawing, dating from 1853 and measuring 52.3 cm x 37.5 cm, showing a young woman posed as if in the act of sketching. She holds a pencil in her right hand and a drawing pad in her left. She is standing with her body almost full frontal and her face turned to the right, away from the viewer. From the intent look in her eyes and the determined set of her mouth it seems that she is giving her full concentration to a selected subject. From her very fashionable and formal dress, artfully draped shawl and carefully styled hair, the subject looks like a genteel young woman.

Educational value

This resource is useful because it:

  • is considered to be one of the finest examples of portrait drawings made in colonial Australia
  • is a highly finished drawing - not a preparatory or compositional sketch
  • is a drawing by William Strutt, who was an artist well known in Australia as the creator of some of Australia's most nationalistic and famous pictorial images and who was also Australia's best trained and finest 19th-century painter of portraits, figures, animals and historical events
  • demonstrates the artist's knowledge of a drawing style - the detailing of the face and upper body and clothes is of pinpoint accuracy, but less important details such as the lower area of the dress have been designed to fade away in a flurry of controlled open strokes
  • demonstrates skillful use of the pencil medium in its rendering of a wide variety of different materials and surfaces - particular attention has been given to the different materials that compose the dress and shawl or wrap; the referencing of such details as the lace patterning on the right side of the figure and the variegated light-shimmer of the pleated upper garment is outstanding
  • shows impressive control in the rendering of light falling on the young woman's face and arms as well as her clothes - the interplay of highlights, shadows and reflected light around the area of the neck and jawline shows a disciplined and observant eye at work; the 'capture' of the sheen of the hair is an additional feature
  • communicates a strong sense of three-dimensional form through the use of light watercolour washes combined with tonal shading and pattern-like pencil strokes - the strong, dark areas that describe the deep pleating of the lower dress, the finer folds on the bodice and curls of the hair help to emphasise the solidity of the figure
  • is a very fine example of the pictorial skills of William Strutt - Strutt inherited his considerable talent and great eye for detail from his father, who was a noted miniature painter, and through academic training in Paris (as well as work as a magazine illustrator and engraver), where he acquired skills in illustrating and composing large groups of figures; these skills are particularly evident in two of his best-known works made after his arrival in Melbourne in 1850: a bushfire subject 'Black Thursday, February 6th 1851' (1851), and a bushranging subject 'Bushrangers, Victoria, 1852' (1887)
  • illustrates an aspect of cultural life and entertainment of the colonial period - sketching and watercolour painting were fashionable pastimes for ladies, just as playing the piano was a fashionable accomplishment.