On “Walter Sickert, Painting and Transgressing” at the Petit Palais, Paris.
Walter Sickert (1860–1942), a leading figure in British art, has been neglected in France, despite his close links with Degas and Jacques-Emile Blanche and his collaborations with the French art dealers Paul Durand-Ruel and Alexandre Bernheim. Sickert also spent a long residency in Dieppe. When Sickert was dropped by Bernheim’s gallery, the artist’s international fame was dealt a lasting blow. In recent years, however, Sickert found a French champion in Delphine Lévy (1969–2020), a founder of Paris-Musées (the public body that manages the city’s fourteen public museums, including the Petit Palais) and the author of a richly illustrated and documented monograph on the artist, Sickert: La provocation et l’énigme, posthumously published in 2021. She was preparing “Walter Sickert, Painting and Transgressing” with Tate Britain when she suddenly died of a stroke in Brest. The exhibition is dedicated to her memory.1
Sickert was indeed a provocative, enigmatic, eccentric, rakish, and theatrical figure of a kind once not uncommon in Britain. Born in Munich but brought up in England by his father, Oswald Adalbert Sickert, a painter and illustrator, and his Anglo-Irish mother from Dieppe, Sickert began his career as an actor in the troupe of Sir Henry Irving and Ellen Terry. He then turned to painting, studying at the Slade School of Fine Art and then in James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s studio starting in 1882. Denys Sutton, who wrote a biography of the artist in 1976, observed Sickert to be a man of masks. Sickert’s love of shadows is witnessed in the exhibition’s opening, when one is confronted by an 1896 self-portrait that shows him with one eye invisible, his sinister face partly hidden in darkness. Other self-portraits depict him in different settings and in different roles: in his art studio, as a shadowy figure in a bowler hat in The Juvenile Lead (1907), as a bearded, square-faced figure in The Servant of Abraham (1929)—his countenance reminiscent of George Bernard Shaw’s—or as a bald, older man after a serious illness in 1927 (Lazarus Breaking his Fast). In his later years, Sickert enjoyed disguising himself as Lazarus in paintings such as The Raising of Lazarus (1928–29).
William Rothenstein, a painter and personal friend of Sickert, wrote in his memoir Since Fifty: Men and Memories that the artist, “a finished man of the world,” surprised him by his taste for low-life themes and subject matter. Sickert, after living in a squalid part of Chelsea, moved to lower-middle-class Camden Town. There, he painted a series entitled The Camden Town Murder, and he later boasted that he had lodged in the same house as Jack the Ripper. The crime novelist Patricia Cornwell has insisted that Sickert himself was Jack the Ripper, though they were in different places at the time of the murders.
Sickert’s experience as an actor aided him in capturing glimpses of theater life in his painting. Rehearsal, The End of the Act. The Acting Manager (ca. 1885–86) shows Helen Couper-Black, the leader of a theater troupe, whom Sickert had earlier portrayed in a haunting engraving, exhausted and resting on a couch. The painting, no less moving than the engraving, exhibits a rich green shading, a favorite of Sickert’s palette, to give a sense of the manager’s weariness after a long rehearsal.
Degas’ paintings of popular café-concerts may have inspired Sickert to turn to painting the music halls of the 1880s. Sickert’s work with Whistler and Degas was crucial to the development of his painting—though his time with such strong mentors may have harmed him in finding his way as a successful artist. His preferred subject matter, the English music hall, was seen as lower-class and a source of vice by Victorian society, thereby limiting the painter’s ability to sell his art. The exhibition presents a fascinating comparison of the works painted by Whistler and Sickert when they were working together in the 1880s. Even then, Sickert was using flamboyant colors and rapid brush strokes reminiscent of Magnasco in his music-hall scenes. Sickert enjoyed friendly and romantic relationships with some of the women he met at music halls, and such dalliances caused his first wife, Ellen Cobden, to divorce him, depleting his finances. Sickert’s music-hall paintings are delightful, and the large room devoted to them is the exhibition’s highlight. Minnie Cunningham at the Old Bedford (1892) shows the dancer and actress standing alone, statuesque in her long, red dress and hat, the details of her face barely visible. In Little Dot Hetherington at the Old Bedford Hall (1888–89), we see a mirror reflecting a music-hall scene of a singer in a white dress gesturing upwards to the spotlight and the red curtains before the audience. Sickert continued to use the stage as a subject throughout his career, as in 1915, when he captured the performance of a Brighton theater troupe before a night sky of muted red and blue hues in Brighton Pierrots.
Sickert’s music-hall paintings were not paying his bills, however, so he first turned to portraits and then scenes of Dieppe, Venice, London, and Paris. Sickert’s portraits included portrayals of his friends, such as Aubrey Beardsley (1894), captured in profile, and Jacques-Emile Blanche (ca. 1910), who in 1922–23 donated several Sickert paintings to Rouen’s Musée des Beaux-Arts. Dieppe became a muse to Sickert, as did Venice. Sickert’s paintings of Dieppe, Façade of St Jacques (ca. 1899–1900) and L’Hôtel Royal Dieppe (1894), and of Venice, St Mark’s (Pax Tibi Marce Evangelist Meus) (1896) and The Façade of St Mark’s Red Sky at Night (1895–96), convinced the artist that he was suited to the picturesque rather than the portrait. These large, colorful paintings are close in their brightness to the art of French Impressionists, Fauves, and Nabis.
At first in Dieppe and Venice and then on his return to London in 1905, Sickert, inspired by Courbet and Degas, explored the nude in a realistic form, eschewing the erotic and classical precedents with often stark bluntness. The exhibition describes him in this instance as a forebear for such masters of ugliness as Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. This fascination for the sordid permeates his scenes of the intimate life of Camden Town. As Virginia Woolf remarked in 1934, if Sickert’s music halls and picturesque scenes reveal him to be a poet on canvas, works like Ennui (ca. 1914), depicting the bleakness of life in modest circumstances, show Sickert the painter-novelist.
The exhibition allows visitors to discover the various and sometimes contradictory facets of the elusive Sickert and to enjoy an underappreciated artist of many masks.
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