The Music Lesson by Martin Drölling

At first glance, this painting may seem like just a music lesson—but it is full of symbols that help tell a darker story. Take a deeper dive into the work.

The Music Lesson (1796) by Martin DröllingMilwaukee Art Museum

Drum and Phrygian cap
The drum on the chair and the hat worn by one of the boys both symbolize the French Revolution (1789–99).

This hat style is a Phrygian cap, worn by revolutionaries as a symbol of freedom and liberty. Similarly, the beat of the drums used by the French armies provided a sort of soundtrack to the Revolution.

Music Lesson
The two boys learning to read and play music—skills requiring discipline and focus— counterbalance the dark allusions to the French Revolution.

This central action of the painting references the hopeful philosophies of Enlightenment thinker John Locke, who believed that every child was born a tabula rasa, or “blank slate,” capable of any level of accomplishment or learning when provided with the proper guidance.

Dress
This woman’s dress isn’t the current fashion, but her hairstyle is.

This tells us she’s likely struggling financially: she can’t afford a new dress, but styling her hair is free. The fact that her dress is expensive and a few seasons too late implies that she was once well-to-do, but is now teaching music to make money.

Flowers
The woman holds a small bouquet of flowers in her hands. Is she longing for a lost love?

Hat
This is a man’s hat, but there are no men in the painting. Could this have been the hat of the woman’s husband, killed in the Revolution?

Cupboard
Although the room seems relatively fancy, the empty food cupboard suggests that the woman in the picture might have fallen on hard times.

Dishes
This detail of a still life (or painting of objects) on the table shows Drölling’s skill as an artist: ceramic dishes and a glass pitcher may not be necessary to tell the story, but they demonstrate how talented Drölling was at depicting different kinds of surface textures.

Cat
Cats can be a symbol of chaos and disorder. The artist, therefore, might have included the cat here to symbolize the chaos and disorder of the French Revolution.

Young girl
This young girl is not paying attention to her music lesson. Rather, she is looking directly at us.

As is the cat. The girl is visually associated with the cat in other ways, too. Each sits in a similar position in the picture, and even the colors Drölling used to paint them are the same—red and green.

Shoes
The woman’s shoes are of the type you would see in a seventeenth-century Dutch painting. A detail such as this is known as an artistic “quote.”

The painter, Martin Drölling, looked at and was influenced by Dutch art, and this detail shows not only his artistic heritage but also his knowledge of art history.

Credits: Story

Martin Drölling
(French, 1752–1817)
The Music Lesson, 1796
Oil on canvas
19 13/16 × 24 in. (50.3 × 61 cm)
Purchase, with funds from Avis Martin Heller in honor of the Fine Arts Society
M2013.26
Photographer credit: John R. Glembin

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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