by Layden, Molly
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Walter Sickert 1860-1942
In a letter to Virginia Woolf, Walter Sickert wrote that he had "always been a literary painter, thank goodness, like all decent painters" (Johnson 217). Woolf obviously agreed with him. In her book Walter Sickert: A Conversation in which guests at a dinner party discuss Sickert's work, she writes, “Not in our time will anyone write a life as Sickert paints it. Words are an impure medium; better far to have been born into the silent kingdom of paint” (23).
Although much of his life was spent working in England, Walter Richard Sickert was born in Munich on May 31, 1860. His father, a Danish artist, was working as an illustrator for a comic journal. Eight years later, Sickert, his father, and his English mother moved to England, where Sickert attended school until he was seventeen. He became an actor, but was not very successful. After several small parts, he left the stage, and entered the Slade Art School in London, against his father's wishes (Walter 1).
Shortly thereafter, Sickert became aquainted with James McNeill Whistler, who greatly influenced Sickert's life and painting. Through Whistler, Sickert was introduced to Edgar Degas. Under the tutelage of these two masters, he was steered away “from being a provincial Impressionist, grazing on first impressions” (Hughes 64). His early works are focused on scenes of the city, especially of the theaters, which at this point were at their peak in popularity.
Sickert eventually moved away from his scenes of streets and theaters, but his work was still concerned with popular culture. Long before the Pop artists who came much later in the twentieth century, Sickert began working from photographs and movie posters (Hughes 64).
Throughout his career, Sickert was a very active and proficient artist. Beginning in 1910, he contributed many sketches to The New Age, as well as several essays on art and reviews of other artists. For instance, in the April 9th issue of 1914, Sickert published a review of his pupil Spencer Fredrick Gore titled “A Perfect Modern.” In this article he comments on Gore's “astonishingly accelerated and fragrantly personal development” (14.23:718). He also praises Gore's ability to bring beauty to scenes of “dreariness and hopelessness” (718). He writes that a true artist “can take a piece of flint and wring out of it drops of attar of roses” (718).
Despite his glowing review of Gore's work, all of Sickert's written contributions to The New Age were not positive. It seems as though “Transvaluations,” from May 14, 1914, praises Pablo Picasso, Signor Marinetti, and Roger Fry. However, Sickert writes that with their criticism, these three “have demonstrated, in four or five years, with the rapidity of a galloping consumption, where lies a blind-alley” a place where “criticism need spend no time in wandering” (35). He attacks Picasso once again in the June 13th, issue of 1912 in a letter to the editor. This letter was written as a response to a previous article in which Huntly Carter denounced Sickert's work. In his letter, Sickert writes that Picasso's style is “half-nursery, half-museum” and states that “Cubism is not art” (11.07:167).
In 1911, Sickert founded the Camden Town Group which grew and, three years later was renamed the London Group. The group, which included other members such as Lucien Pissarro and Spencer Gore, had showings in galleries throughout London, and was highly praised. In a letter to the editor of The New Age, D. Fox Pitt wrote, “People of taste will always be thankful to Mr. Sickert for having founded the Camden Town group” (215).
In the years after his death in 1942, Sickert was somewhat forgotten. However, he began to receive a great deal of attention in the latter half of the twentieth century from a series of paintings that he produced form 1908 to 1909. The series, which featured murdered prostitutes alone in a bedroom with a man, led many to believe that Sickert was the infamous serial killer Jack the Ripper. Although most critics dismiss these allegations as pure rumor, detective novelist Patricia Cornwell is still determined to prove his guilt. In recent years, Cornwell spent about $4 million on Sickert's paintings and his painting table. She had these items inspected, and subsequently destroyed in an effort to find DNA that might link him to the murders. She found none, but is still determined and says that she is “staking my reputation on this” (Stalking 1).
The fact that this series compelled Cornwell to jump to such a conclusion might have actually pleased Sickert because of his desire to be thought of as a literary painter. He saw his paintings as “conversation pieces” and wanted viewers of his work to see characters in a story, not just subjects in a painting (Johnson 271). In Walter Sickert: A Conversation, the characters of the book discuss the stories that Sickert's painting tell. One of the characters recalls a picture of a girl sitting on a bed half naked:
The bed, a cheap iron bed, is tousled and tumbled; she has to face the day, to get her breakfast, to see about the rent. As she sits there with her night-gown slipping from her shoulders, just for a moment the truth of their life comes over her; she sees in a flash the little garden in Wales and the dripping tunnel in the Adlephi where she began, where she will end, her days (25).
In this passage, a story emerges from Sickert's painting. The woman becomes a character with feelings and memories, not just a face rendered on a canvas.
Sickert's sketches also tell stories, although they are not always the stories that the titles suggest. For example, The Argument, which was published in The New Age on June 13, 1912, suggests at least two people involved in a discussion. However, the sketch is of a woman, sitting also with her arms and legs crossed. The viewer sees the aftermath of the argument, or possibly glimpses a woman in a moment of internal debate. Another piece, Reconciliation, implies a happy scene. The sketch does show two people in an embrace, but the face of one of the figures is caught in a grotesque expression.
From the time he began painting until his death, Sickert remained productive and admired. Just a year before he died, he was honored with a one-man exhibition at the National Gallery in London. His art, which he intended to be literary in nature, compelled Woolf to write, “Sickert is among the best of biographers” (18).
- Johnson, E. D. H. Paintings of the British Social Scene. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1986.
- Hughes, Robert. “Music Halls, Murders and Tabloid Pix.” Time. 25, January 1993: 64+.
- Pitt, D. Fox. “Art Critics.” The New Age, 2 July 1914: 215 (15.09:215).
- Sickert, Walter. “A Perfect Modern.” The New Age, 9 April 1914: 718 (14.23:718).
- ---. “The Art of Mr. Sickert.” The New Age, 13 June 1912: 167 (11.07:167.
- ---. “Transvaluations.” The New Age, 14 May 1914: 35 (15.02:35).
- “Stalking Jack the Ripper.” ABC News.com. Online.
- “Walter Richard Sickert: 1860-1942.” Wet Canvas! Cyber Living for Artists. Online.
- Woolf, Virginia. Walter Sickert: A Conversation. London: The Bloomsbury Workshop, 1992.