Ennui by Walter Richard Sickert

Ennui by Walter Sickert (c.1914)

Yesterday we looked at a painting by Robert Polhill Bevan and talked about the Camden Town Group of artists and its leading light the Munich-born Walter Sickert.  Today I want to look at the life of Sickert himself and at one of his best known paintings.

Walter Richard Sickert was born in Munich in 1860.  His father, Oswald Sickert, who was technically of Danish nationality, always considered himself German and did not speak Danish.  Oswald Sickert was a dramatic genre and landscape painter.  Walter’s mother was Eleanor Louise Moravia Sickert (née Henry) who was the illegitimate daughter of Richard Sheepshanks, the English astronomer, and his Irish lover.   Oswald and Eleanor had three children, two sons, Walter and Bernhard and a daughter Helena, who as Helena Swanick was to become a well-known suffragist and pacifist.  Walter Sickert’s parents had left Munich in 1851 and settled in London around the time of the Great Crystal Palace Exhibition.  At the age of ten, Walter was sent to the University College School in Hampstead, North West London and after a year he moved to the King’ College School at Wimbledon where he remained until the age of eighteen.  He applied to join the British Museum for a position in their department of coins and medals but was turned down.

Both Walter Sickert’s father, Oswald and his paternal grandfather, Johann were painters so one may have thought that Walter would follow their artistic trail but after his job application failure he decided to turn his attention to acting and his main ambition now was to become an actor.  In his early days he managed to play small parts in Sir Henry Irvine’s touring theatrical company using the pseudonym, Mr Nemo.   He soon realised that he was not going to make the grade as an actor and turned towards art.  He briefly attended the Slade in 1881 but left and began to work as an assistant to the American artist, James McNeill Whistler, who had been living in the English capital for a number of years.  Whilst working in Whistler’s studio, Whistler entrusted Sickert to travel to Paris with the painting, Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, which he had just completed and wanted to present it to the Paris Salon for their exhibition.   Whistler also gave Sickert two letters of introduction; one to Manet, but at the time Manet was seriously ill and could not see Sickert and one to Degas, whom he met.  Sickert was very impressed with Degas and his work and received much advice on his painting technique.  The works of Degas would greatly influence Sickert in the future.  Sickert was now twenty-three years of age and even at this young age he had already come upon the three greatest influences of his future artistic career, namely, the theatre, Whistler and Degas and the young Sickert from this point of his life, never looked back.  Whistler had instilled in Sickert the importance to constantly record what he saw and would often walk around with a copper plate and an etching needle in his pocket.  Sickert exhibited for the first time in 1884 at the Society of British Artists in London and signed himself simply as “pupil of Whistler”.  His early paintings were of life in London music halls highlighting the roles of the audience, musicians and actors, somewhat similar to Degas’ paintings of the dancers and café-concert entertainers.  There was an underlying sexual theme in a number of these paintings but it should be remembered that just as in Degas’ Paris,  female performers on London stages were looked upon as having similar morals to prostitutes of the London streets.

In 1885, aged twenty-five, he married the daughter of a Liberal politician and spent many of the ensuing summers in Dieppe. He also was a regular visitor to Venice. In 1893, with the help of James Whistler’s patronage, he opened an art school in London. He often exhibited his theatre and music hall-themed works at the New English Art Club, which had been founded in 1886 in opposition to the Royal Academy. He also took part in the exhibition of British Impressionists held in London in 1889.   One of his last trips to Venice was dogged by bad weather and Sickert’s desire to paint en plein air was dashed.  It is thought that the old adage “necessity is the mother of invention” happened for Sickert as he was forced to paint indoors  and it was at this point in time that he started to develop his own distinctive approach to the multiple figure tableau that would continue after he returned to England.  According to the author Robert Upstone in his 2009 book,  Sickert in Venice, Sickert would employ prostitutes to sit for his Venetian paintings, many of whom he would later have a physical relationship with.

Walter Sickert was fascinated with the under-belly of London life and based his studio in a working-class area of London.  In 1905 his studio could be found in Camden Town and this was to be the favoured location and meeting place for Post-Impressionist artists of the time.  It was here in 1911 that the Camden Town Group of artists was founded under Sickert’s leadership.  The list of artists who met there on a regular basis was like a Who’s Who of Post-Impressionists with the likes of August John, Lucien Pissarro, Henry Lamb and Wyndham Lewis just to name a few.  A couple of years later the Camden Town Group came together with the Vorticists, which was a short-lived modernist movement in British art and poetry along with other like minded artists’ associations which wanted to challenge the domination of the Royal Academy which they believed had become both unadventurous and conservative.  This newly founded artistic conglomerate was known simply as The London Group and still survives today.

Sickert became an associate of the Royal Academy in 1924 and an Academician ten years later.  Shortly afterwards, however,  he resigned in protest against the hostile attitude of the president toward the work of Jacob Epstein. Much of his later career was devoted to teaching and writing.  In 1941 Sickert was honoured with a one-man exhibition at the National Gallery in London. The next year he died in Bath, aged 82.

My Daily Art Display featured work today is entitled Ennui by Walter Sickert which he completed around 1914 and which can now be found in the Ashmoleon Museum in Oxford.  It was painted at Sickert’s London studio in Fitzroy Street.  The title of the painting is the French word for boredom and in the painting Sickert depicts a man and a woman, who despite being portrayed in close physical proximity, seem to have lost the art of communication, which in turn has led to a dislocated relationship.  One presumes it is a husband and wife but could also be a father and daughter but the sense of disarticulation is still the same.  They both gaze into space.  They face opposite directions.  Their thoughts are their own. Don’t you wonder what is passing through their minds?  Maybe they contemplate on what went wrong with their relationship and what would have been their future if they had never met.

On the chest of drawers which the woman is leaning against there is a bell jar which contains an array of stuffed birds.  Their entrapment under the glass dome is symbolic of the entrapment of the two humans in their relationship.  On the wall we see a painting which appears to be of a music hall diva and the melodrama which goes with her profession which of course is in complete contrast to the scene she looks down upon.  The model for the man in the painting was “Hubby” who was an old school friend of Sickert and who had fallen on hard times and whom Sickert gave shelter and kept in beer over a number of years.  The woman was Marie Hayes, a woman who had modelled for Sickert on a number of occasions

Virginia Woolf, who met Sickert in 1923 and 1933, argued that Sickert’s pictures could be classified as stories in their ability to stimulate and develop plots and dialogue. However Sickert disagreed saying that if the subject of a painting could be stated in words there would be no need to paint it.

So what do you think is going on in the painting?  I will leave you with Virginia Woolf’s description of what she saw in the painting:

“…the picture of the old publican, with his glass on the table before him and a cigar gone cold at his lips, looking out of his shrewd little pig’s eyes at the intolerable wastes of desolation in front of him. A fat woman lounges, her arm on a cheap yellow chest of drawers, behind him. It is all over with them, one feels. The accumulated weariness of innumerable days has discharged its burden on…”