11 Outstanding Works Created by People of Student Age

Image shows a pianist playing, seen from above, on a red carpet.

If you’re anything like me, you may think of famous works of art, stirring pieces of music, impressive architecture or great sculpture and imagine them being produced by grey-haired, bearded geniuses at the pinnacle of their careers.

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You probably don’t imagine them being created by teenagers, the equivalent age of people taking their GCSEs, A-levels and undergraduate degrees today. But the great works we talk about in this article were all produced by people of student age, showing just how much it’s possible to achieve at this comparatively young age. Some of the artists, musicians and writers we mention here were child prodigies, while others simply had a love of their craft that enabled them to take on a big challenge and see it through to fruition. If you’re struggling to motivate yourself – perhaps you’re trying to finish a painting of your own, or struggling to get to grips with writing a book – have a read of the fascinating stories behind some famous works of art, literature, sculpture and music and seek inspiration from what these people achieved.

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1. Mary Shelley – Frankenstein

Image shows Castle Chillon and Lake Geneva.
Bad weather in “the year without a summer” kept those staying on Lake Geneva indoors; hence the need to amuse themselves with ghost stories.

Mary Shelley famously penned her Gothic horror masterpiece when she was just 18. The chilling tale of an eccentric scientist and his ghastly creation came about at a now legendary house party in Switzerland, attended by guests including the Shelleys and Lord Byron. When Byron suggested a competition in which guests came up with ghost stories, Mary Shelley spent days trying to think of a good yarn. Eventually the inspiration came to her in a waking dream and Frankenstein was born. Her contribution so impressed her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley that he encouraged her to expand it into a novel, and it was published two years later. It’s considered to be an early form of science fiction, and has been enormously influential both on subsequent literature and on popular culture.

2. Michelangelo – Madonna of the Steps

Image shows a detail from Madonna of the Steps.
Madonna of the Steps can be seen in the Casa Buonarroti in Florence.

As one of the greatest minds of the Renaissance, and one of the greatest artists of all time, there wasn’t an awful lot Michelangelo couldn’t do. He was an artist, sculptor, architect, painter, engineer and poet, and so prodigious was his talent that he was known during his lifetime as ‘Il Divino’ (the Divine One). His skills showed at a fairly early age; he was just 17 when he produced his first work, the Madonna of the Steps, a marble relief sculpture completed in 1491. He completed the Battle of the Centaurs not long afterwards, and would go on to design St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, sculpt the Piet à and David (both before he turned 30), paint the ceiling and altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, and many, many more. Interestingly, and a mark of his exceptional achievements, Michelangelo was the first Western artist to be honoured with a biography during his lifetime. Indeed, not one but two biographies were published while the artist lived, one hailing his work as the pinnacle of Renaissance artistic achievement (a view still held by many to this day).

3. Mozart – lots and lots of compositions

Image shows modern Salzburg.
Salzburg, where Mozart was court musician from the age of 17.

Mozart already had a long string of compositions behind him by the time he reached 16, but the novelty of this child prodigy, whose performances had been exhibited extensively around Europe, was beginning to wear off as he grew into adolescence. Between the ages of 16 and 25 he continued to compose prolifically, his output including five symphonies, six string quartets influenced by Haydn, the B Flat Major bassoon concerto, an opera, several violin concertos and the Mass in C Major. By the time he’d reached the age of 23, he’d secured the position of court organist at Salzburg, composing some incredible sacred works, such as the famous Coronation Mass. With his most famous compositions, such as the 40th symphony, clarinet concerto, Don Giovanni and the Requiem still to come, even Mozart’s earlier works reveal stunning talent that few have ever come close to equalling.

4. Matthew Lewis – The Monk

Image shows a detail from a portrait of Matthew Lewis.
Matthew Lewis at the age of 25.

It seems remarkable enough that The Monk: A Romance was written in just ten weeks, let alone that it was written by a 19-year-old. Matthew Lewis published his Gothic novel in 1796, and it may have been hastily written, but it is considered to be one of the most important examples of its genre from this period. The scandal running through its plot provoked controversy but is doubtless part of its appeal, and it’s no surprise that it has been adapted for the theatre and cinema many times. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was among those offering a critique of the work at the time of its publication. He observed that it was “the offspring of no common genius”, though was also critical of the novel, decrying its horror scenes as evidence of “low and vulgar taste” on the part of the writer. He even expressed the opinion that “the Monk is a romance, which if a parent saw in the hands of a son or daughter, he might reasonably turn pale” – a somewhat amusing reaction to an author who was barely out of childhood himself when he wrote the work that prompted such distaste. Coleridge’s denunciation of the lurid material in The Monk was representative of many contemporary views, in spite of its unusual popularity; Lewis’s own character was attacked as well as his writing, even posthumously. However, such criticism certainly doesn’t detract from the impressiveness of Lewis’s achievement at such an early age.

5. Mendelssohn – Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Image shows Edwin Landseer's depiction of the scene in A Midsummer Night's Dream where Titania falls in love with Bottom, who has an ass's head.
The overture echoes the themes and sounds of play, include Bottom braying as an ass.

Mendelssohn was just 17 when he composed one of his most famous pieces, the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Op. 21). Much admired for its musical maturity, it was inspired by a German translation of Shakespeare’s play that the composer had read in 1826. The overture was intended to be performed in a concert setting rather than to precede a performance of the play, though 16 years later Mendelssohn would be commissioned to write incidental music for the play by King Frederick IV of Prussia. His original overture was incorporated into this new work, which also included another of the composer’s phenomenally popular compositions: the Wedding March, now played at weddings the world over as the bride and groom walk down the aisle as husband and wife. It seems doubtful that Mendelssohn could have predicted the success of this piece, but it’s amazing to think that we owe this wedding staple to a 19th-century teenager.

6. Pablo Picasso – Portrait of Aunt Pepa

Image shows a detail from Picasso's Portrait of Aunt Pepa.
Portrait of Aunt Pepa can be seen in the Museu Picasso, Barcelona.

Though he painted throughout his childhood, critics consider artist Pablo Picasso’s career to have begun properly when he was just 13 years old. It is then that his work starts to mature, and in 1896, aged 14, he painted The First Communion, which depicted his sister Lola in a far more realistic manner than the Cubist style for which he later became famous. In the same year, he painted Portrait of Aunt Pepa, a masterpiece that looks deep into the soul of his aunt and was hailed by Juan-Eduardo Cirlot as “without a doubt one of the greatest in the whole history of Spanish painting”. Four years later Picasso would make his first trip to Paris, art capital of Europe, where he learned French and burned his paintings to keep his apartment warm. If they’d not been burnt, they would be worth a fortune today; his paintings are among the world’s most expensive, and more of Picasso’s paintings are stolen than of any other artist!

7. Frederic Chopin – Nocturne in E-Flat Major

Image shows Wembley Stadium with Muse performing.
Muse’s song ‘United States of Eurasia’ is followed by an instrumental solo called ‘Collateral Damage’, based on Nocturne in E-Flat Major.

The Romantic composer Frederic Chopin composed many of his sublime piano works before the age of 20, at which point he left his native Poland to start a new life in France. By the age of 22 he had composed the Op. 10 set of 12 Etudes, a number of Mazurkas, several of his celebrated Nocturnes and many more. Among the Nocturnes he composed during this period was the Op. 9 Nocturne in E-Flat Major, his most famous, completed when he was just 20. Even if you don’t recognise the name of this piece, you will almost certainly recognise the tune; it’s been featured in numerous films and even in a song by the rock band Muse (we wonder what young Chopin would have thought of that).

8. S.E. Hinton – The Outsiders

Image shows a detail from the book cover of the Outsiders.
The book has led to a film adaptation and a TV series.

Susan Eloise Hinton wrote the coming-of-age story The Outsiders when she was 16 and still at high school, publishing it in 1967. It is perhaps because she wrote it when she was still at school that the emotions she writes about feel so real and immediate; the book has proved very popular in the decades since it was written because these emotions are still so relevant to school-goers today. Such was the admiration for this and other books Hinton wrote at this time that she was awarded the inaugural Margaret Edwards Award by the American Library Association, recognising her outstanding contribution to writing for teenagers.

9. Rossini – The Italian Girl in Algiers

Image shows the painting 'Arrival of Marshal Randon in Algiers' by Ernest Francis Vacherot.
Algiers in the 19th century.

Composer Gioacchino Rossini composed his popular opera The Italian Girl in Algiers in 1813, when he was just 21, and if he is to be believed, it took him just 18 days. Its sequel, The Turk in Italy, appeared a year later, revealing his great talent for composing hugely successful operas that cemented his reputation as one of the great Italian composers. That he achieved this despite being a reputedly lazy student is all the more remarkable, but his skills were evident from early on, as he went to Bologna’s Philharmonic School aged 14 and composed his first opera in the same year (1806). Just as today’s students try to earn some extra cash while they’re studying, so too did the young Rossini: he used to sing in public for money.

10. Anthony van Dyck – Self-portrait

Image shows a detail from van Dyck's self portrait.
By the age of ten, van Dyck had begun studying with Hendrick van Balen.

Flemish artist Anthony van Dyck exhibited artistic promise from an early age. Aged just 15, he was already highly capable and painted his own self-portrait (1613-14). By the time he reached the age of 19, he had joined the school of the great Peter Paul Rubens, whose chief assistant he was to become at this time. Rubens described the young van Dyck as “the best of my pupils” – quite a compliment coming from a man whose dominance on the art scene during this period was enormous. Van Dyck would go on to become England’s leading court painter, finding great favour with King Charles I, whose portraits are among the artist’s most notable works.

11. Camille Saint-Saëns – Symphony No. 1 in E-Flat Major

Image shows 'The Entry of the Animals into Noah's Ark' by Jan Brueghel the Elder.
Saint-Saëns’s The Carnival of the Animals remains extremely popular.

French composer Camille Saint-Saëns was 16 when he composed his first symphony, having enjoyed considerable attention as a childhood prodigy for much of his upbringing. Indeed, such was his talent that he would challenge audiences to pick any of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas and he would play it from memory as an encore. His second symphony (published, confusingly, as Symphony No. 1) was completed when he was 18, and its maturity astonished critics when it was first performed. He would go on to compose many more famous works, but would be best known for his Carnival of the Animals, a musical suite with different musical themes for an assortment of animals (including, amusingly, pianists and fossils).
It’s inspiring to think that these great works were all the product of the very young; all students themselves, many still in school, and not all of them child prodigies or geniuses. It’s a reminder to all of us of the impressive things we can achieve if we put our minds to it; you don’t have to be a child prodigy to create great works when you’re still young. So, if you’ve got a great idea for a novel, or a vision for an original artwork, or you’ve been hit with a lightbulb moment of any kind, what are you waiting for? Don’t let your youth hold you back from achieving great things even if you’re still at school.

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Image credits: Lake Geneva; Madonna of the Steps; Salzburg; Lewis; Midsummer Night’s Dream; Aunt Pepa; Muse; Algiers; van Dyck; animals

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