A December 1937 exhibition of Walter Sickert’s early paintings inspired the critic Clive Bell to explore his artistic development. Looking at these early works, Bell saw the influences of Sickert’s teachers, James Abbott McNeill Whistler and Edgar Degas, while acknowledging that “there has always been an essential Sickert”. The exhibition showcased the artist’s continued fascination with urban culture, particularly working-class London, and dedication to documenting domestic scenes. Sickert’s morbid curiosity with crime and his intimate scenes depicting nude women have more recently led many to speculate whether Sickert could have been Jack the Ripper. Bell deems that his debauched depictions make him “the best English painter alive”.
Walter Sickert, as I shall continue to call him though he is apt to call himself Richard, is not only the best English painter alive, he is our living and lively old master. “Old master” I say, not because he has ceased to experiment and even play tricks with his trade, but because whatever he may do in the future is unlikely much to alter his place in public esteem. His eminence is recognised by everyone in England who cares for and understands painting. And even people who neither care nor understand, politicians and journalists for instance, speak of him with respect, acclaiming his art conspicuously British. In this they mistake.
The subjects of his pictures, to be sure, are as often as not what more lyrical writers than I might call “racy of the soil”: he delights in shabby modern London as much as in 18th-century Bath; he has a taste for that English invention the Music Hall; he enjoys English “characters”, and English jokes he enjoys only too well; while in his predilection for Dieppe he may also be accounted insular. Superficially, his attitude to life is becoming quaintly John Bullish; but his art, his painting, is nothing of the sort. His ancestors are not Gainsborough and Constable, but Whistler and Degas.
At the Redfern Gallery in London’s Cork Street have been brought together, with some difficulty I surmise, 50 of what are described as Sickert’s “early paintings”. A few may have been done in the small “eighties” – there are no dates in the catalogue – while one or two I recognise as belonging to the last years of the war: the rest were painted somewhen between. It is a fine pleasure to see ranged side by side so many first-rate works by a living artist and a friend, and I am deeply grateful to whomever it was that hunted them out, though I could wish we had hung them farther apart. In the earliest works the influence of Whistler is clear enough; in the rest the influence of Degas is always appreciable and never comes amiss. Whistlerianism disappears soon and for good like fog in September; but the influence of Degas remains like a sharp and essential sapid in a well-made sauce.
There was a time, indeed, when I believed that Sickert was no more than a greatly gifted disciple of that great and grumpy old Frenchman, who, by the way, professed admiration for the younger artist, and affection. But I was wrong. As this exhibition proves, there has always been an essential Sickert, with temperament and technique of his own, distinguishable from those of any other artist, and this distinct character, as time goes on, comes more and more to the front, becomes dominant.
Sickert has toyed with technical theories galore: he has almost obliterated beautiful drawings under a network of neatly ruled red lines, he has crowded his margins with written notes and indications: as for aesthetic doctrines, he has poked at plenty – my own amongst others. In practice, however, he has trusted only his proper sensibility; few good painters have dealt less in programmes. To tell an artist to trust his sensibility is to give excellent advice, always provided he has sensibility in which to trust. Anyhow, it is the only advice that has much sense in it, seeing that, in the last resort, sensibility is all that an artist has to depend on. An insensitive artist is a contradiction in terms. No work of art was ever begun or ended by taking thought alone. Sickert has trusted his; with what results you may see for yourself. Look into any one of these pictures. Observe a scratch here, a hatching there, here a sight line or a squiggle of trickling paint, there what looks at first sight like a burr of confused lines: not one of them but is admirably expressive, and descriptive, too. These things were not done according to plan; they record the direct and excited vision of an artist.
That vision is Sickert’s own even more than his peculiar method of rendering it. If his colour – doubtless the most excellent of his qualities – and his drawings often remind us of Degas, they never remind us of a Degas. His pictures, always distinguished and subtle and sometimes magnificent, are never mechanical, and since Venetian days, at all events, sensibly unmistakable. Sickert is always discreetly but sensibly Sickert; that is why he is a master. Talented artisans and thoughtful technicians, though by no means as commons as blackberries, are probably less rare than medlars. Individual sensibility is a thing apart; and he who has it and can express it gives the world something that neither knack nor perseverance can begin to supply. As Sickert himself once put it: my pictures are like the clippings of my toenails; they grow out of me and I have cut them off, and that is all I know about it. And that is why an exhibition of his pictures is an artistic event.
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