Walter Richard Sickert A.R.A. (British, 1860-1942)
Woman in Profile with Downcast Eyes signed 'Sickert' (lower right) oil on canvas 50.8 x 40.6 cm. (20 x 16 in.) Painted circa 1904-5
PROVENANCE: The artist Purchased from the above by Adolphe Tavernier and Bernheim Jeune, Paris, 14 June 1907 With Adams Gallery Dr Robert Emmons, 1934 With Agnews, London, 1952 Private Collection, Australia
EXHIBITED: Paris, Bernheim Jeune, Exposition Sickert, 10 - 19 January 1907, no.69 (as Portrait) Adelaide, Art Gallery of South Australia, Walter Richard Sickert, 1968, no.20 Sydney, David Jone's Art Gallery, Walter Richard Sickert. 1860-1942, 13 May - 8 June, no.6 Sydney, David Jone's Art Gallery, Walter Richard Sickert 1860-1942. Paintings and Drawings from Public and Private Collections in Australia, 14 - 30 August 1980, no.13
LITERATURE: Lillian Browse, Sickert, London, 1960, pl.36 Wendy Baron, Sickert, Paintings and Drawings, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2006, p.303, cat.no.233
This is one of Sickert's most lovely and tender portraits. Its distinguished provenance includes Adolphe Tavernier, a noted French art connoisseur and collector, and Robert Emmons, Sickert's first biographer. Yet we know nothing of its subject. Lillian Browse first published the painting in 1960 under its present clumsy, but accurately descriptive, title with the tag Venice attached. Many paintings by Sickert over the course of a century have lost their original, more explicit or evocative, titles. However, several decades ago, Professor Ronald Pickvance identified this painting from a photograph in the archives of the Paris dealer, Bernheim Jeune. He established that it was bought directly from Sickert by Tavernier (who advised the dealer) and that it was first exhibited in Sickert's one-man show at Bernheim in January 1907 (no.69) under the even less helpful title, Portrait. Most of the paintings unsold at the 1907 exhibition, were included in an exhibition and sale arranged by Bernheim at the Hôtel Drouot in 1909. This time the catalogue gave dimensions which suggest the possibility (nothing stronger) that the 1907 Portrait reappeared as Profil (no.22) or Portrait de Mlle E... (no.56), neither of which has yet been identified.
While the Bernheim exhibition proves that the latest possible date for the painting was the end of 1906, its style and handling belong firmly within a 1904-5 date bracket. This was a time when Sickert especially favoured bust-length profile female portraits with the face in shadow, eyes downcast, eyebrows, eyelashes, mouth and chin defined in summary lines of drawing with the brush. There are comparable portrait studies, some of models painted in Venice over the winter of 1903-4, others probably done in London from 1904-5. It is particularly close to the quirky profile portrait which still bears its intriguing original title, Danseuse de Memphis U.S.A.
Like Danseuse de Memphis, but unlike Sickert's Venetian studies, Woman with Downcast Eyes is painted on an English, not a Continental, size canvas. This fact implies an English source for the portrait. Indeed Sickert, having gone to live abroad in 1898, spent much of 1904 in London before returning to England permanently in 1905. During this time his emotional life was in turmoil. His frequent and unrepentant infidelities with countless women had forced his first wife to divorce him in 1899. Ever susceptible, his infidelities persisted but did not prevent him from proposing marriage during his visit to Venice of 1903-4 to Maria Luisa Fortuny, the eccentric spinster sister of Mariano Fortuny (best remembered now as a fashion and textile designer). His suit ultimately refused, Sickert considered remarriage to his first wife Ellen who had never ceased to befriend and support him. However, Sickert's active social life over the winter of 1904-5 on his return to London presumably dissuaded him from making a long-term commitment. Among the women he encountered was the beautiful Mrs George Swinton with whom he enjoyed a passionate friendship celebrated in many portraits, some identified as such, others not. The tenderness of Woman in Profile strongly suggests the sitter was not a hired model, but a treasured friend or lover. Had the canvas been continental, Maria Luisa Fortuny might have been a candidate. An identification with Mrs Swinton accords with the date and the English canvas, but Woman in Profile lacks Mrs Swinton's voluptuous sensuality. If the present painting is the portrait shown in Paris in 1909 as Mlle E, does the initial give a clue to her identity? Not, I fear, one I have unpicked. Were we to see this delicate-featured portrait as representing a woman of 56, she could be his first wife, Ellen. But this seems far-fetched. Sickert clearly did not want his sitter identified so the mystery endures.
We are grateful to Wendy Baron for compiling this catalogue entry.