Walter Sickert was an influential British painter from the early 20th century who also became embroiled in the famous Jack the Ripper case. His paintings were a combination of Post-Impressionism and Modernism and he was also friends with a number of other high profile artists.
Indoor scenes with figurative work was the most common genre within his oeuvre, and Sickert was particularly skilled in capturing the lives of relatively ordinary people from the late 19th century through to the early 20th. Besides this, he also captured the world of theatre and music too, leaving content which is not too dissimilar to that of French illustrator, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The artist counted a number of prominent figures within his circle of friends and this led to some highly memorable portraits such as those of Aubrey Beardsley, King George V and Peggy Ashcroft. He would vary his style slightly across his career, using heavy paint later on, having initially derided such a method. The achievements of Sickert has certainly influenced a number of later British artists and exhibitions of his work are become more and more frequent. The greatest influence on young Sickert would be his teacher, James Whistler, from whom he took a good amount of technical guidance from, as well as being led on the types of content that he might feature within his work.
He would travel and live abroad at various times in his life, with France being the most prominent destination. French art would influence his artistic style as a result of this, and he would become friends with a number of prominent artists who had links to the Impressionist era. Back home he found inspiration in the dark British weather to move away from the Impressionist palettes towards something more suitable for the UK. He focused on the lives of ordinary Londoners and started to indicate more of a realist manner in some people's eyes. His lively social and personal life led to him being married three times and it is fair to say that he made the most of his eighty-odd years. Exhibitions and publications about his work appeared soon after his passing and have continued regularly ever since. He is also rightly mentioned as an influence on the lives of many other British artists who arrived in the later generations and some even knew him personally.
Walter was fortunate in his upbringing which brought about an impressive education that set him up for a successful career in whatever path he chose to take. He was initially expected to become an actor, but switched to his father's choice of art just as his acting career was starting to take off. He spoke French and German fluently which made European travel fairly easy and it also opened his eyes to different cultures from an early age. His father's role as a painter and engraver would eventually influence his son's life choices, but the two had very different artistic styles. Walter became highly contemporary and would use art in a more creative, less commercial manner which enabled him to build a far stronger reputation than his father could manage.
Sickert's career offered good variety in terms of both content and style. We have included a handful of his most famous paintings below, with further information on each provided within their own respective pages. His travels abroad would inevitably bring in alternative content such as his Venetian architecture, but it will always be his indoor scenes across London that are the most memorable element of his career. Ennui, The New Bedford and La Hollandaise remain perhaps his best known works, though he also produced some portraits of high profile figures, though the paintings are not famous in themselves. The likes of Aubrey Beardsley, Winston Churchill and King George V would all sit for him, for example. With the focus entirely here on his oil paintings, it must not be forgotten that Sickert was also a talented etcher who had continued the family line in that regard, though painting would be his main concern from his early twenties onwards.
Sickert's style was a combination of several different influences, combined with his own unique ideas. The Impressionist work of Degas would affect his early years, but Sickert then picked his own British-centric content, and also used a considerably darker palette for his own interpretations. There was also a similarity to Realism within some of his works which would also be noticed by generations of artists that followed on afterwards. He was interested in the lives of Victorians and attempted to capture their emotional states on canvas within personal depictions which brought the viewer directly into each scene. He therefore played an important role in linking different movements together, whilst also helping to transport us back in time to the real lives of ordinary folk. Every element of the room would be included and considered, with lighting delivered in a manner which felt entirely suitable and familiar to the British public.
In his early twenties, the artist would work under the wing of experienced painter, James Abbott McNeill Whistler. He would serve as an etcher, but the knowledge that he acquired during this service was far more diverse than simply that medium. Much of the influence of his teacher could be seen several decades later, though he would add other elements on top as his career progressed. Impressionistic touches came about after several meetings with Edgar Degas, though he fused some of its ideas with his own, rather than simply copying what had gone before. He marvelled at Degas' work after a tour of his studio, and immediately took some of its artistic principles back to the UK, allowing new movements to spread across the country. Aside from his work in and around North London, Sickert would aslo spend considerable time back in France from time to time, as well as in Venice, and these two locations would influence elements of his style but also, more obviously, some of the content too.
Techniques and Mediums used
Whilst taking in Impressionist ideas from Degas, the artist continued to use much darker palettes for his pictures as compared to his French counterparts. This approach produced a moody atmosphere within some of his portraits and perhaps reflected the more overcast nature of the UK. Portraiture was a major part of his career and he would capture individuals within their homes, helping to connect directly with the personalities of these different people. There would be more upbeat artworks, though, such as his architectural studies in Venice, where light would flood his paintings, and also the lively social scenes which featured the London night life. He paid particular attention to music events, and attempted to get across the beauty of sound within a visual manner, whilst also addressing the social aspect of these occasions. Sickert spent time in the company of a number of very famous artists and this exposed him to new techniques that could complement his own approach, such as with the wet-on-wet methods used by Whistler, for example.
Walter's earliest experience with art would certainly have come from his father, Oswald, who produced dramatic landscape scenes as well being highly skilled as a engraver. Indeed, Walter would seem to be following directly in his father's footsteps when he became a pupil under Whistler, where he worked as an engraving assistant. Fairly soon, though, he would experiment with oils and from then on painting became his main focus. As a child his main interest had been acting, and so he had to be proactive in learning artistic techniques after bypassing the earlier part of his life to focus on other things. As his interest in painting continued he would befriend a number of notable artists who encouraged this charming character and also helped to outline some contemporary ideas which would re-direct his path. His extrovert nature and love of social evenings would also start to appear on canvas, and his interest in people more generally would establish portraiture as his main genre. As a child, Walter attended some highly regarded colleges which would help him to navigate his way around upper society as his career brought him into contact with some notable figures in a variety of industries.
Aside from his trips to France which helped his style to continue to evolve for several decades, the artist would start to concentrate on the lives of ordinary people within series of intriguing and thought-provoking artworks. His subjects would often be staring around their rooms, considering their lives and wondering what had got them to where they were at that point. Sickert offered an interest in the working classes too, creating a studio within one of those communities and hiring local people in order to better understand their own situations. Some of his models would already be known to him and his approach started to gain a following for the first time. Whilst he continued to draw influence from abroad, the artist's content remained focused on his home country, and London in particular. He therefore left behind some delightful insights into the lives of Victorians, with each portrait ladened with detail and atmosphere. He had certainly surpassed his own father's level of success by this point and although he was a part of an artist collective in Camden, he never lost the unique nature of his work that made him so memorable.
The artist lived pretty much half of his life in the late 19th century, and the other half in the 20th. By the 1920s he would move to France once more and continued to work, though started to suffer regular bouts of illness as he entered middle age. His reputation had soared to such a level that his portrait subjects included the likes of Winston Churchill, and the two would become friends. He was also heavily involved with the Royal Academy and served several positions with them before falling out with the institution in later life. Several notable collectors would compete to acquire his work and financial pressures were long since gone whilst he enjoyed the fruits of his labour. Sickert continued to teach young students, eager to encourage new blood into the art world, and benefit from some of the knowledge that he had gleaned over the years from the likes of Degas and Whistler.
Jack the Ripper
Extraordinarily, in recent years there have been a number of publications which have suggested that artist Walter Sickert was actually the notorious murderer, Jack the Ripper. We do know that he took considerable interest in the case, and even rented a room believed to have been used by the killer previously. Several authors have even put forward DNA evidence to put forward their case but most believe these ideas to be nonsense. The killer's true identity therefore remains unknown, but this topic does add an extra historical element to Sickert's life and career. He also produced the artworks Jack the Ripper's Bedroom and The Camden Town Murder which may have started some of these rumours in the first place. Thankfully, most have not altered their view of his work based on some intellectual gossip and Sickert remains regarded as one of the most important British artists from around the turn of the century.
Artists such as Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and Richard Hamilton would take in much from Sickert's approach in the early 20th century, even at a point when the collective in which he was involved in Camden Town was itself starting to wain in popularity. Photography was believed to have lied behind elements of the style that they used within portraiture, and this would then be taken in by generations of artists who followed on after. It is also worth noting that Sickert stood out as the figurehead and biggest talent within that group, and upon his death in the 1940s, many publications and exhibitions were organised to celebrate the full body of work that he accomplished. Sickert would also add to his legacy and influence by teaching many young art students in later life, which helped to pass on some of the considerable artistic knowledge that he had built up through his relationships, travels and hard work over the preceding decades.
Walter Sickert was known to be something of an eccentric and an extrovert, able to charm fellow artists and build strong relationships from that. He would socialise regularly, with some of the same locations then appearing within his work. He was a major figure within the Camden Town Group which itself has become regarded as highly influential within British art, but during its existence it was only Sickert who received much admiration. He is seen as highly significant in the movement towards Modernism, and his late use of thick paint would be taken on by other artists such as Freud, David Bomberg, Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach and Howard Hodgkin. He varied his style across his career and other examples used much thinner applications that would appeal to other artists coming through at the time. The lighting also changed, though most remember him most for his dimly lit indoor portraits, rather than the brighter pieces which appeared in his later years.
Tom Gurney in an art history expert. He received a BSc (Hons) degree from Salford University, UK, and has also studied famous artists and art movements for over 20 years. Tom has also published a number of books related to art history and continues to contribute to a number of different art websites. You can read more on Tom Gurney here.