This painting and its pair (The Poet, CVCSC:0269.2.S) both depict scenes of everyday life. The paintings represent a cross-section of eighteenth-century Neapolitan society and show the types of lively encounters that Grand Tourists visiting Naples might have enjoyed. Both paintings reveal Bonito's skill as a portraitist. The individual character of each of the figures is evident and they are arranged theatrically within a small space, with a contrast between bright and dark colours achieved through dramatic lighting.
In The Music Lesson a young musician plays the harpsichord, while the elegantly dressed young man standing at the right may be singing along in harmony. Music making is often used in paintings to symbolise love and courtship, and that could be the message here. Behind the young lady, an elderly music teacher leans forward to turn the page. Visiting Naples in 1792, French artist Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) noted that past nine o’ clock in the evening ‘almost all of Naples is at the theatre’. Music and theatre permeated every level of society, from the conservatories, where students studied music at the highest level, to the street musicians pictured by Pietro Fabris. The young lady in this scene would have undoubtedly been familiar with the music of Domenico Scarlatti (1685–1757), a renowned Baroque composer and harpsichordist from Naples. Perhaps she is even playing one of his 555 keyboard sonatas?
In the right background are several more figures, including a Black servant with a tea-cup. The woman may be a slave – most large Italian cities had slave populations, and Southern port cities had the largest numbers. Slaves were often prisoners of war taken from the Islamic states of North Africa, who were made to do manual construction work. Although Charles of Bourbon introduced reforms that restricted the slave trade in the early eighteenth century, slavery was not legally abolished in the Kingdom of Naples until 1808.
This pair of canvases was once part of a set of four that were sent to Spain in Bonito's lifetime (the other two showed girls sewing and boys reading) and were displayed at the Feast of the Four Altars in Naples in 1738 and 1739, a popular celebration founded to promote the spread of the Corpus Christi, still celebrated today in Torre del Greco, a town near Naples. Traditionally given to Gaspare Traversi (c.1722–1770), an artist known for his genre scenes, the present painting and its pair are now attributed to Giuseppe Bonito, who studied with the influential Neapolitan artist Francesco Solimena (1657–1747). Bonito became court painter to the King of Naples in 1751, and in 1755 head of the Academy of Drawing and of the tapestry manufacturers in Naples.
Giuseppe Bonito The Music Lesson 1738–1739 © Compton Verney