Walter Richard Sickert A.R.A. (British, 1860-1942)
Le Corsage Violet signed 'Sickert' (lower left) oil on canvas 50.8 x 40.2 cm. (20 x 15 7/8 in.) Painted 1907-08
PROVENANCE: The Artist His sale; Bernheim Jeune, Hotel Drouot, Paris, 21 June 1909, lot 11, where acquired by Robert John Griffith Thence by family descent to the present owner
The re-entry of this painting into the Sickert canon after more than a century is to be greatly celebrated. Distinctive in its Camden Town subject matter, sophisticated in its handling, it is a masterpiece of Sickert's maturity. It has remained in the family of the man who bought it at auction in Paris on 21 June 1909, has never been published and never exhibited. That auction, organised by Sickert's Parisian dealer Bernheim Jeune, was previewed for only 3 days, at the Bernheim gallery on Friday 18th and Saturday 19th June, and at the Hôtel Drouot, the main sale rooms in Paris, on Sunday afternoon, 20th June. Many French admirers of Sickert's work, among them the painters Paul Signac, Pierre Bonnard and Maximilian Luce, the writers Romain Coolus and Félix Fénéon and the curator Paul Jamot, seized the chance to buy key works by Sickert. However, only one English name featured as a purchaser in the annotated catalogue: 'Griffith'. He bought two paintings, La Seine, du Balcon (now in the Fogg Museum, University of Harvard) and Le Corsage Violet.
The Griffith family was, at the time of the sale, living in Paris where their son, Frank, was studying painting at L'Académie de la Palette, the private art school then under the direction of Sickert's friend Jacques-Émile Blanche. On their return to London, Frank Griffith became a pupil of Sickert at Rowlandson House. Was it he who encouraged his father, Robert John Griffith, to buy at the Sickert sale?
The painting belongs to a series of Mornington Crescent interiors done over the winter of 1907-8 which feature two models, sometimes painted together, sometimes singly, wearing black straw hats with a shallow flat crown and a wide brim. In a letter addressed to Mrs Hugh Hammersly at the end of 1907 Sickert wrote: 'And I have two coster girls in the hats called "American sailors" between whom my progress is as transparent & embarrassed as Garrick's between the two muses.' Early in 1908, in a letter to Nan Hudson telling her of his current work, Sickert sketched L'Américaine (Tate, London), a painting of a coster girl wearing such a hat. He explained: 'I am deep in two divine costergirls − one with sunlight on her indoors. You know the trompe l'uil hat all the coster girls wear here with a crown fitting the head inside and expanded outside to immense proportions. It is called an "American sailor" [hat].' His letter reveals how he was fascinated by the lives of his models and the way they dressed: 'in the sumptuous poverty of their class, sham velvet &c. They always wearing for everyday dirty, old, worn clothes, but Sunday clothes. Extraordinary lives. Men, who live on them, now & again hitting them with 'ammers, putting poisonous powders on cakes, trying to cut their throats, drugging their whisky &c.'
Sickert's imagination responded to the tales told by his models and to his studio at 6 Mornington Crescent where his landlady believed Jack the Ripper had been her lodger nearly 20 years earlier. He realised that the home life of his own models was not unlike that of Emily Dimmock, whose throat was cut in her Camden Town bedroom in September 1907. Hence his appropriation of the title 'The Camden Town Murder' for several paintings of a nude woman and a clothed man set within his Mornington Crescent rooms. The setting of Le Corsage Violet and the version of The Camden Town Murder in Kirkcaldy Museum and Art Gallery is identical, but in place of the dramatic narrative implied by the bed and two figures in the 'Murder' subject, is the tender close-up study of his coster model.
Le Corsage Violet now joins L'Américaine and The New Home (private collection) as the most complete and perfect examples of Sickert's Camden Town coster girl interiors. The corsage of the title is barely visible; it declares itself only through the squiggled lines of lilac grey paint on the far side of the model. The handling throughout, with the broken dabs of highlight on the brim of the hat, the reflected light falling from the window in the background to illuminate the contours of the girl's face, the rich and varied sweeping strokes of colour which build up the bodice of her coat and her high-necked blouse, is both constructive and luscious. While the title has long since been known to Sickert scholars from the sale catalogue, the quality and beauty of the painting is an unexpected revelation.
We are grateful to Dr. Wendy Baron for the compiling this catalogue entry.