The exhibition at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester charts the influence of the port of Dieppe on the art of Walter Sickert (1860-1942). Dieppe attracted many British writers and artists in the 19c. including Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley.
Sickert painted numerous townscapes of Dieppe, often painting the same views in different conditions of light and from different viewpoints – he has been compared to Canaletto, in the sense that he produced an almost topographical account of the town’s architecture. His work there included drawings, etchings, prints and sketches, and record an intense interest in the shops, cafes, inhabitants, churches and streets, harbour and fishing quarter.
Sickert was a permanent resident in Dieppe for seven years and a regular visitor for over four decades, so he had a long standing connection to Europe and contemporary French painting that set him apart from his peers in Britain. As his years there went on he was affiliated with the impressionists (Monet, Pissarro), and forged a long-standing friendship with Degas. Later he played host to Spencer Gore and Harold Gilman, whose visits to Dieppe played a formative role in the Camden Town Group . He came to influence many later British artists including Frank Auerbach, David Bomberg, Celia Paul.
At first (1885) he painted atmospheric scenes in the manner of his teacher, James McNeill Whistler, but as he came under the influence of Degas, his paintings started to combine the earlier vague, ethereal style with a more representational, carefully planned, strongly architectural mode. Here are my notes on a selection of the paintings I looked at.
L’Hotel Royal, 1894 – The facade of the hotel was a brilliant white, and yet in the painting, which seems to be set in the fading light of a sunset, it has taken on the greenish tint of the grass in front of it. The sky meanwhile is a sort of a lilac-pink. Respectable middle class promenaders shimmer in white and dun colours, melting into the dusk. Tricolours droop, but their colours are broken. The effect is wholly that of the end of something – the fading of light, the fading of the era, the century and the way of life that preceded the First World War.
From 1899 Sickert painted harbour scenes, local fisherwomen, and the streets leading from the harbour. He made many many paintings of narrow streets with hand carts, small shops and tiny houses, juxtaposed with the facade of the gothic church of Saint Jacques, which he investigated in two distinct series of work from every possible viewpoint. Although these paintings are wonderful studies in bright light and shade, and impressionistic, they were made from working drawings in the studio, and not plein air in the manner of the Impressionists. They look as a spontaneous response to the subject might do, but they were apparently carefully calculated and planned.
Facade of St jacques, 1902 is an ethereal treatment of a very solid, architectural subject. The purplish sky is brushed in roughly over an under layer of luminous yellow, which is allowed to show through. This golden yellow pervades the whole scene. The monumental facade shimmers with it, it’s edges broken and dissolving. The building at the vanishing point of perspective, bathed in light, is dabbed with a bright version of the same yellow. The buildings darken in shadow nearer street level and melt into the dark tan coloured road – mixed presumably from the same purple and yellow colours. A figure walks the pavement on the left – totally un-detailed and only discernible by the head and shoulders contrasted with the dark building behind it.
Sickert gave this advice to a colleague: “Don’t try and make too certain a painting. Go loosely and lightly and quickly” (exhibition notes). I think his is advice very well worth my bearing in mind when painting townscapes and interiors especially, as the nature of the subject leads me to concentrate on precise detail to the detriment of my expressive and emotional aims.
Coin de la Rue, Sainte Catherine, Dieppe, 1900-2 The stone tracery of the rose window has a remarkable realistic 3D effect, given that the brushwork when I inspected closely is made of very sketchy brush strokes of ochre and brown, with some splashes of pure white. The figures are devoid of detail and most blend in totally with their background – which means they don’t distract the eye from the main focus of the work, the church facade. There, there is high contrast both in colour and tone, between the deep blue sky and the bright ochre stonework.
In 1912 Sickert moved to a countryside village 12 miles from Dieppe, and painted landscapes until 1914 when he returned to England for the war years. In 1919 he returned there and resumed his landscape work
Dieppe Races, 1920-26 I looked at this landscape for some time, admiring the composition of a village set in a distant plain, viewed from a high ridge. A combination of Sickert’s tendency to paint his subject as if melting into the middle ground, the gallery lighting and my short-sightedness meant I didn’t see the galloping racehorses until I read the exhibition notes! The horses are painted in the foreground in a blur of blue-grey and a reddish-brown, and their riders, despite being dressed in colourful silks, are captured as indistinct, fleeting impressions. Like the Hotel Royale the effect is unsettling; the lowering sky, the long shadows and the horses rushing through like ghosts gave me a feeling of time rushing by, unstoppable.
In his final years in Dieppe, Sickert returned to figure painting and interiors, working from live models in his studio, and painting circus troupes, cabaret, casino and restaurant scenes. The theme was pretence and play-acting. As a sometime ex-pat, looking at the selection of these paintings, I can sense that he struggled to feel that he belonged to his adopted home. In the words of Joni Mitchell “Oh it gets so lonely – when you’re walking and the streets are full of strangers”. His subjects frequently had their backs turned to him. They were immersed in a culture he could only look at as an outsider. His deep-down home was Britain, and he cut his ties with Dieppe and returned to London in 1922.
Baccarat – The Fur Cape, 1920 has an extraordinary composition, worthy of Degas. How can a painting of someone’s back be a good idea? But the carved chair, red hat and tiger-skin cape are bursting with interest in form, line and colour, they are a feast for the eyes – and their abstract ness is balanced by the interest of the scene going on across the table, and the complementary touch of green in the lady on the right’s hat. It goes to show a bold, abstract approach to composition can be very successful.
Victor Lecour, 1922-24 Was a restaurant proprietor in Dieppe. Sickert has posed him standing proudly, his prosperity emphasised by his magnificent girth and luxurious surroundings.
This painting appeals to me for its use of colour and light and the handling of paint. The colours, as in all of Sickert’s oeuvre, are muted, but this painting is very colourful – there are reds, yellows, blues and violets, greens. There is daylight from the window falling on the figure’s left side, and electric light on his right. The two are handled completely differently; the daylight is subtle and graduated; the electric light is hard edged and bright, almost daubed on thickly with a freely used brush. The patterns, textures and colourfulness of the interior reminded me of Matisse with his highly decorated interiors.
The exhibition notes cite Degas’ Diego Martelli as a precedent for this, and also a similarity to the plush surroundings of Matisse’s Odalisque series – both are shown below. Matisse’s interiors also often had a seafront balcony as a prominent feature, as has this painting. I like the light striking M. Lecourt, describing the solid round dome of his head, the light, transparent texture of his beard and then, roughly highlighting his entire right side in the same ochre, which seems to suggest another light source, perhaps artificial.
My impression of Sickert’s painting before I saw this exhibition and later reflected on it, was of an overall somber, brown, crumbling darkness. Where I wondered were the bright colours of Degas and the Impressionists by whom he was supposedly influenced? But as Celia Paul writes, “it seemed to me false, too, to imitate the pure colours of Cezanne, who, after all, painted in the south of France, whereas here we were in dark and rainy London [substitute Dieppe] where the predominant colours are luminous grey and brown. If bright colours are seen, then they appear all the more intensely against the darkness, but not as in the fusion of light that pervades all the colours of a late Cezanne painting”.
The Red Shop (The October Sun), 1888 has a palette of brown, with warm golds and ochres; the bright contrast of the vermillion gives the impression of the setting sun striking the facade
The Square at Night, 1902 appeared nowhere near so bright in the gallery where it was displayed behind glass from which the lighting reflected.
When I saw the painting in digital format (shown above) the colours were a revelation, and I guess closer to the actual painting if seen in good light and without glass.
The colours are flat, quickly painted areas, drawn with the brush on top of a grey-mauve underpainting which shows through in many places and gives the whole composition a unity. The complementary yellow touches shine out by contrast. Once more, the figures are comprised of simple blocks of colour, with little detail, even in the foreground, but they are clearly a throng of people, adding liveliness, and making us think about what they are watching, what street show is going on in front of them. The complementary contrast of the green windows and the red of the gendarmerie trousers draws us in.
L’armoire à glace, 1924. The reds, yellows and oranges seen in the mirror appear intensely against the overall darkness in this scene. I notice Sickert often uses near-black to delineate architectural and interior features, but in such a way that (unlike me!) he avoids any hint of attempting precise technical drawing. I think he does this by making his lines very variable, sometimes exaggerated, sometimes vague, often thick, coarse, wavering, and usually meaningful, by which I mean he’s not just drawing artificial lines that don’t exist, but lines he observed, denoting an edge, a change of plane, a cast shadow etc.
References (websites accessed 17-18/09/2015)
Sickert in Dieppe, ed Anna Zeuner, Pallant House Gallery