With its superb treatment of color and gentle, diffuse light, The Music Lesson is a masterpiece of Tonalist painting and a wonderful example of Thomas Wilmer Dewing's finest mature works. A master draftsman and exquisite colorist, Dewing created some of the most serenely beautiful paintings of his time. The artist's predominant theme emerged in the 1890's with elegant women sitting in sparse yet beautiful interiors, captured in contemplative moments. The Music Lesson truly demonstrates Dewing's contention that the purpose of the artist is "to see beautifully."
In 1922 Catherine Beach Ely wrote: "In some of his methods Dewing is a modernist, yet in his choice of models and point of view he stands alone, combining the romantic and classic tradition with up-to-date technique. In his work aristocracy of feeling and modernity are married." ("Thomas W. Dewing," Art in America and Elsewhere, August 1922, p. 229)
Stylistically, The Music Lesson shows the influence of Tonalism in its limited palette and diffuse, gentle lighting. Dewing evokes a sense of melancholy through his skillful and deliberate use of a narrow tonal range. His sitters are presented as if in a dream world. In the present example, she is dignified and elegant rather than beautiful, seated on a low bench at the spinet. Devoid of anecdotal drama, Dewing imbues the scene with an aura of quietude and tension, recalling the works of Jan Vermeer, who was much admired at the time.
In August 1906, Dewing's close friend and patron Charles Lang Freer presented the artist with the first in a series of volumes that constituted the catalogue raisonné of Vermeer's work. Scholars note that Vermeer's work clearly suggested to Dewing many of the props that appear in his paintings, including the spinet seen in The Music Lesson. While certainly inspired by the Dutch master in terms of subject and mood, technically Dewing worked quite differently. Whereas Vermeer built up his forms three-dimensionally using thick layers of paint, Dewing painted some areas so thinly that the ground becomes almost part of the composition. The Music Lesson exhibits the stippling and fine brushswork characteristic of his mature works.
Kenyon Cox, a contemporary of Thomas Dewing, wrote, "Some hundreds of years hence the historian of our time may be puzzled by Mr. Dewing's treatment of our life, and wonder if the ladies of the day usually sat in such bare rooms or wore low-cut dresses in the daytime; but what does it matter? It is a fantasy, but what a delicate one!" (as quoted in S. Hobbs, Beauty Reconfigured: The Art of Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Brooklyn, New York, 1996, p. 31)