Cup of Tea, 1905
Bonne Fille, 1906
Helen Carte, 1885
Les Petites Belges (Young Belgian Women), 1907
A painter I've always liked from afar is Walter Sickert. I say from afar because I never sought out a biography or treatise on him, it was simply that each time I came across one of his works I took note. I am always drawn to his colors: smokey, tenebrous, sharp, acidic. In my mental storehouse of aesthetics, mood and color, however, his choices were always relegated to the appealing but problematic section. His subjects lay in the working classes, the music hall stage, the decadent and alien exoticism of Venice, and most notoriously, in the seamy bed-sit flats of Camden Town and the prostitutes who toiled in them. The moods he captured ranged from the cheerfully tawdry to quiet grimness to the palpably brooding. It wasnt his subject choice that I found problematic, it was something about the atmosphere he conjured up—insistently and consistently—in each work. Is it the sense of remove? Is it the voyeurism? Airlessness? A bit of Sickert is tonic, dwell too long in those visual spaces and one feels a creeping discomfort.
Sickert was born in Munich to a Danish father and an English mother, but grew up in England. After a brief career on the stage, he became an assistant to James MacNeill Whistler. After 1890 he went to Paris and studied with Degas. Sickert's return to London in 1905 was followed up with a series of nudes that have become inextricably linked with the Camden Town Murder mystery. These paintings and Sickert's perverse sense of self-promotion (calling, for instance, a very equivocal scene of a weary clothed man and sleeping(?) naked woman alternately "What shall we do for the rent?" and "Camden Town Murder") ultimately led to the preposterous theorizing of author Patricia Cornwall that Sickert was Jack the Ripper.
Recently I read a brief but brilliantly written essay about Sickert by Max Kozloff*. In it is one of the most expertly evocative descriptions of color:
...It would be hard to imagine a more distraught monochrome a more neurasthenic sobriety. Whether in its resiny or vaporous distillation, the paint molds into umber purple, degraded violets, emaciated brownish greens, diseased oranges, prussic, somewhat mildewed blues, the whole occasionally enlivened with little splutters of toned-down white, cream or mustard.Somehow I find degraded violets incredibly enticing. Perhaps this speaks to my fascination with Farrow and Ball color charts and my longstanding wish to be paid to research and name colors.
* update: I should note that this essay is in an obscure and out of print book, The Grand Eccentrics (From Medieval to Contemporary: the eccentric in painting, sculpture and architecture). Many thanks to Malcolm Enright who pointed me to this fascinating collection of essays. An uneven, and in some ways flawed, book it is never the less a terrific storehouse of some great writing and invaluable facts about some of the most riveting figures in art. The book deserves its own post and I will try to collect my thoughts and write one asap.