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.
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