Today’s Artist Birthday: Walter Sickert
Walter Richard Sickert (31 May 1860 – 22 January 1942), born in Munich, Germany, was a painter and printmaker who was a member of the Camden Town Group in London. He was a cosmopolitan and eccentric, who often favored ordinary people and urban scenes as his subjects. His oeuvre also included portraits of well-known personalities and images derived from press photographs. He is considered a prominent figure in the transition from Impressionism to Modernism, influencing future British artists such as Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon.
Sickert was the eldest son of Oswald Sickert, a Danish-German artist, and his wife, Eleanor Louisa Henry, who was an illegitimate daughter of the British astronomer Richard Sheepshanks. In 1868, the family left Munich to settle in Britain, where he was sent to University College School from 1870–1871, before transferring to King’s College School, where he studied until the age of 18. Though he was the son and grandson of painters, he first sought a career as an actor; he appeared in small parts in Sir Henry Irving’s company, before taking up the study of art in 1881.
After less than a year’s attendance at the Slade School, he left to become a pupil and etching assistant to James Abbott McNeill Whistler. His earliest paintings were small tonal studies painted alla prima from nature after Whistler’s example.
In 1883, he travelled to Paris and met Edgar Degas, whose use of pictorial space and emphasis on drawing would have a powerful effect on Sickert’s work. He developed a personal version of Impressionism, favoring sombre colouration. Following Degas’ advice, he began painting in the studio, working from drawings and memory as an escape from “the tyranny of nature”.
In 1888 he joined the New English Art Club, a group of French-influenced realist artists. His first major works, dating from the late 1880s, were portrayals of scenes in London music halls. One of the two paintings he exhibited at the NEAC in April 1888, Katie Lawrence at Gatti’s, which portrayed a well known music hall singer of the era, incited controversy “more heated than any other surrounding an English painting in the late 19th century,” though by today’s standards it is difficult to understand why. At the time however, Sickert’s rendering was denounced as ugly and vulgar, and his choice of subject matter was deplored as too tawdry for art, as female performers were popularly viewed as morally akin to prostitutes. The painting announced what would be Sickert’s recurring interest in provocative themes.
In the late 1880s, Sickert spent much of his time in France, especially in Dieppe, which he first visited in mid-1885, and where his mistress, Madame Villain (who went by the name “La Belle Rouse” when she modeled for artists) and possibly his illegitimate son, lived. During this period he began writing art criticism for various publications.
Between 1894 and 1904 Sickert made a series of visits to Venice, initially focussing on the city’s topography; it was during his last painting trip in 1903–04 that, forced indoors by inclement weather, he developed a distinctive approach to the multiple figure tableau that he further explored on his return to Britain. The models for many of the Venetian paintings are believed to have been prostitutes.
Sickert’s fascination with urban culture accounted for his acquisition of studios in working-class sections of London, first in Cumberland Market in the 1890s, then in Camden Town in 1905. The latter location provided an event that would secure his prominence in the realist movement in Britain.
On 11 September 1907, Emily Dimmock, a prostitute cheating on her partner, was murdered in her home at Agar Grove (then St Paul’s Road), Camden. The “Camden Town murder” became an ongoing source of prurient sensationalism in the press, a story with which Sickert became enthralled. For several years he had already been painting lugubrious female nudes on beds, and continued to do so, deliberately challenging the conventional approach to life painting—”The modern flood of representations of vacuous images dignified by the name of ‘the nude’ represents an artistic and intellectual bankruptcy“—giving four of them, which included a male figure, the title, The Camden Town Murder, and causing a controversy which ensured attention for his work. These paintings do not show violence, however, but a sad thoughtfulness, explained by the fact that three of them were originally exhibited with completely different titles, one more appropriately being What Shall We Do for the Rent?, and the first in the series, Summer Afternoon.
While the painterly handling of the works inspired comparison to Impressionism, and the emotional tone suggested a narrative more akin to genre painting, specifically Degas’s Interior, the documentary realism of the Camden Town paintings was without precedent in British art. These and other works were painted in heavy impasto and narrow tonal range.
Sickert took a keen interest in the crimes of Jack the Ripper and believed he had lodged in a room used by the infamous serial killer. He had been told this by his landlady, who suspected a previous lodger. Sickert did a painting of the room and titled it “Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom.” It shows a dark, melancholy room with most details obscured. This painting now resides in the Manchester City Art Gallery in Manchester.
Although for over 70 years there was no mention of Sickert’s being a suspect in the Ripper crimes, in modern times three books have been published whose authors maintain that the artist was Jack the Ripper or his accomplice. One author however, admitted to lying about evidence obtained in an interview, another relied heavily on excruciatingly doubtful “scientific evidence” (which at best, might indicated that Sickert had written one of the many “hoax” letters to the press, claiming to be the murderer), and the third had no evidence at all other than hearsay. In 2004, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, in its article on Sickert, dismissed any claim that he was Jack the Ripper as “fantasy”.
Sickert’s best known work, Ennui (c. 1913), reveals his interest in Victorian narrative genres. The composition, which exists in at least five painted versions and was also made into an etching, depicts a couple in a dingy interior gazing abstractedly into empty space, as though they can no longer communicate with each other.
Just before World War I he championed the avant-garde artists Lucien Pissarro, Jacob Epstein, Augustus John and Wyndham Lewis. At the same time he founded, with other artists, the Camden Town Group of British painters, named from the district of London in which he lived. This group had been meeting informally since 1905, but was officially established in 1911. It was influenced by Post-Impressionism and Expressionism, but concentrated on scenes of often drab suburban life; Sickert himself said he preferred the kitchen to the drawing room as a scene for paintings.
From 1908–1912 and again from 1915–1918, he was an influential teacher at Westminster School of Art, and he also briefly set up an art school in Manchester.
He had been married to Ellen Cobden from 1885 until their divorce in 1899, after she discovered him cheating on her more than once. He was then married to Christine Angus from 1911 until her death in 1920. After her death, Sickert relocated to Dieppe, where he painted scenes of casinos and café life until his return to London in 1922. In 1924 he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy (ARA).
In 1926 he married for the third time, to painter Thérèse Lessore. That same year, he suffered an illness, thought to be a slight stroke. In 1927 he abandoned his first name in favor of his middle name, and thereafter chose to be known as Richard Sickert. His style and subject matter also changed: he stopped drawing, and instead painted from snapshots usually taken by his wife, or from news photographs. The photographs were squared up for enlargement and transferred to canvas, with their pencil grids plainly visible in the finished paintings.
Seen by many of his contemporaries as evidence of the artist’s decline, his late works are also his most forward-looking, and prefigure the practices of Chuck Close and Gerhard Richter. Separating these illustrations from their original context and painting them in poster-like colors so that the narrative and spatial intelligibility partly dissolved, he called the resulting works his “English Echoes”.
In 1927, he painted an informal portrait of Winston Churchill. Churchill’s wife Clementine introduced him to Sickert, who had been a friend of her family. The two men got along so well that Churchill, whose hobby was painting, wrote to his wife that “He is really giving me a new lease of life as a painter.”
Sickert became a Royal Academician (RA) in March 1934 but resigned from the Academy on 9 May 1935 in protest against the president’s refusal to support the preservation of Jacob Epstein’s sculptural reliefs on the British Medical Association building in the Strand. In the last decade of his life, he depended increasingly on assistants, especially his wife, for the execution of his paintings.
Sickert had been suffering chronic nephritis (a recurring urinary tract infection), which eventually led to an incurable kidney disease in his final years. The myocardial degeneration that accompanied his failing kidneys finally stopped his heart at the age of 81, on January 22, 1942, in his beloved town of Bath, Somerset. He is buried in the St Nicholas Churchyard,
Bathampton, Bath and North East Somerset Unitary Authority, Somerset, England.