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Walter Sickert: Rebel with a Brush

Posted in Art, Famous artists on Monday, 31 January 2011

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Walter Sickert

Ennui by Walter Sickert (print for sale)

Not far from the centre of London lie two districts called Islington and Camden Town. Here, during the early part of the 19th century, row after row of harmoniously proportioned houses were built to house the workers of the City.

Today these houses, with their large, airy rooms, are anxiously sought after by house-hunters looking for a home with some character and period charm. But when Walter Sickert painted these streets towards the end of the 19th century, they had gone down in the world, seemingly never to rise again.

The plaster was falling off their elegant facades; many had been converted into lodging houses, and now contained several families instead of one. What light filtered through their fly-blown window panes only served to illuminate dreary lodgings, a table perhaps, and a bed and a chair.

These rooms, with the garish music halls which their inhabitants might occasionally visit, were to form the subject matter of Sickert’s most famous paintings. The sordidness of the scenes he chose to paint did not worry Sickert, although his critics objected to his work on the grounds of vulgarity, and the low-class origins of his sitters and their locations.

“Imagine,” screamed the Yorkshire Post in 1908, “a fully dressed British navvy with a dirty-complexioned woman with nothing on at all.”

To Sickert, the background of the people and places he painted was irrelevant – he was mainly concerned with the forms they took and the effects produced by the light that fell on them.

Sickert has been called “an English Impressionist”. But he was only “English” up to a point – he would be better described as a European.

Walter Richard Sickert was born in Munich in 1860. His father was an artist of Danish extraction, while his mother was Anglo-Irish. In 1868 the family moved to England.

At first the young man wanted to be an actor. For two years he trod the boards at provincial theatres up and down the country. By 1881, however, he had become disillusioned with the acting profession and had set his heart on becoming a painter. That year he enrolled at the Slade School of Art, where he soon met one of the leading painters of his day, James McNeill Whistler.

Whistler was then at the height of his creative powers, but so far had received little in the way of recognition. He had already painted several masterpieces by the time he took on Sickert as an assistant.

Lack of critical appreciation had turned Whistler sour. He took his revenge on critics by lashing them with the sharp end of his tongue, which few people could match for sheer invective.

Sickert, with his good looks, his actor’s eye for cutting a fine figure, plus, of course, his “non-Englishness” (Whistler was an expatriate American) would have greatly appealed to the rebellious artist.

In Whistler’s studio, Sickert did everything – cleaning the Master’s brushes, helping him print etchings and mixing his paints. All the time he was learning from a modern master. A year later, the chance came for him to meet another one.

In 1883 Whistler was asked whether he would like to contribute his famous portrait of his mother (see Look and Learn, 14th April) to an exhibition being held in Paris. He agreed, and young Sickert was entrusted with the job of accompanying the picture to Paris.

At the end of his journey, Sickert gave the painting to Edgar Degas, one of the greatest French artists and a leading member of the Impressionist school of art that was causing a furore in Parisian art circles.

Like Whistler, Degas approved of Sickert and became firm friends with him, teaching him many of his theories of art.

Much of Sickert’s later work reveals the influence of Degas: his music hall scenes, in which the faces of the crowd and the performers are given a curious appearance by the gas lighting; and his strange, rather depressing rooms in North London, which look as if a murder has just taken place or is just about to. Many similar subjects were painted by Degas around the same time in Paris.

It is tempting to think of Sickert as a combination of Whistler and Degas, since both men had a profound influence on him. But Sickert grew into something quite different as a painter, despite certain visual similarities in his work.

Whistler, for example, would never have taken his subjects from the working class. Nor did he ever hint at a story behind the picture: he only wished to portray his sitter in the most flattering light possible.

The connection with Degas led to Sickert being labelled an English Impressionist. Yet Sickert, much as he was interested in the Impressionists’ subject matter and their attitude to recording the effects of light, used a much darker palette, composed of sombre browns and greens. His paintings do not have the sparkling colour that make an Impressionist canvas so easy to recognise.

Sickert’s finest paintings were executed during two periods: 1885 to 1895 and 1905 to 1915. During these years, he was living with his wife in Bloomsbury and Camden Town. Like Whistler, Sickert disliked the countryside and greatly preferred the treeless, severe streets of central London.

Sickert gradually became known as the leader of a group of young English painters called the Camden Town Group. During the early part of this century his influence on the younger English painters was enormous. By then, French Impressionism had been accepted as a major step forward in the history of painting.

Sickert, having been a close associate of Whistler and Degas, provided a link between England and France, at a time when there was little knowledge of French painting in England, When he died in 1942, a unique talent was extinguished.

This edited article originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 901 published on 28 April 1979. Click on a picture to find out more about licensing images for commercial or personal/educational use. We are also able to license textual material. Please contact us for details.

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