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Sunday, May 12, 2013

Walter Sickert

Walter Sickert Self-portrait, 1896
As artists grow older, they begin to be haunted by thoughts of who they "might have been" or what they "might have done." At least, those thoughts have occurred to me. One artist from the latter part of the 19th century could be said to be more famous for who he "might have been." For nearly thirty-five years, writers such as Stephen Knight and Jean Overton Fuller, with some justification, have made the English painter, Walter Sickert, famous for who he "might have been." They (and others) contend Sickert "may have been" the London serial killer, Jack the Ripper, or at least an accomplice. There's little doubt, based on his work, that Sickert had an obsession with the 1888 Whitechapel killer. But then again, Sickert had a similar fascination with other grisly tabloid murders such as his Camden Town Murder series (below), the title and subject for several works dating from 1908. As for Jack the Ripper, Sickert claimed to have slept in a boarding house room once occupied by the killer. He even did a painting to the room to prove it.

The Camden Town Murder, (sometimes know as, What Shall We Do for the Rent),
1908, Walter Sickert
Walter Sickert was born in Munich, Germany, in 1860. His father, Oswald Sickert, was also an artist, of Danish-German descent. When Walter was eight, the family moved to England where he first wanted to be an actor, but then, finding little success, studied art at King's College until he was eighteen, then fell in with James McNeill Whistler as a studio assistant specializing in printmaking. Sickert's first works were from the early 1880s, small pieces exhibiting the strong influence of Whistler. His style was loose, impressionistic, with heavy impasto rendering.

Katie Lawrence at Gatti's, 1888, Walter Sickert
In 1883, Sickert traveled to Paris where he met Edgar Degas. He seems to have picked up Degas' style and his taste for "fast" women, or at least his taste for painting them. Sickert's 1888, painting, Katie Lawrence at Gatti's was seen as scandalously undeserving of any artist's time and effort. Katie Lawrence was a singer, who at that time were deemed only one baby-step above the world's oldest profession. The painting was called ugly, tawdry, vulgar, and some other unprintable adjectives. Apparently Sickert loved the attention, he went on to paint numerous other French female entertainers.

Ennui, 1913, Walter Sickert
As the 20th century dawned, Sickert found himself the leader of the British avant-garde, sometimes referred to as the Camden Town Group. Though he flirted with Impressionism, after the turn of the century he became an important transitional figure between that and modernism. The transition was not subtle, moved along by Sickert's second profession as a highly opinionated art critic, sort of a 20th century John Ruskin (whose death he celebrated with a cigarette). His most famous painting from this era (some say the best of his lifetime) was his mysterious Ennui (left, French for boredom) series, four nearly identical paintings, set in a kitchen, which Sickert claimed contained clues as to the identity of Jack the Ripper as being of royal blood (having to do with the painting on the wall).

Winston Churchill, 1928,
Walter Sickert.

Later in life, Sickert continued painting common people doing common things (as seen in Ennui) as well as casino and saloon low-life. He also garnered his share of celebrity portraits and admirers, including future British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill (right). When I began researching Sickert, the name caught my eye only because he's said to have given Sir Winston a few painting tips while painting his portrait. Churchill later claimed his own work was influenced by Sickert, who also influenced younger British artists, Lucien Freud, Francis Bacon, David Bomberg, and Leon Kossoff. As for Churchill's idol having been Jack the Ripper, that seems to have been just a fantasy of his deep, dark, daring, Sickert imagination. He died in 1942 at the age of 82.


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