In 1887, two years after he had been introduced to Edgar Degas and French Impressionism
, Sickert painted the first of his music hall scenes. Thereafter popular entertainment was a recurring theme in his work. While Brighton Pierrots belongs to that strand of his production, its highly original composition
and its use of warm, vivid colour marks a departure from earlier work and points to developments in Sickert's work of the 1920s and 1930s.
Sickert spent much of the late summer of 1915 in Brighton as the guest of his patron, the painter Walter Taylor. For five weeks he regularly went to see the Pierrot's perform on a small, temporary stage erected on Brighton beach, making as he did so several preparatory sketches for a painting
. On his return to London, Sickert produced the first of his Brighton Pierrots (private collection, reproduced Baron 1973, p.272, cat.no.254), and was immediately asked by another of his patrons for a copy. Though Sickert rarely accepted such commissions, on this occasion he did. The second version is the painting seen here. The major compositional difference between the two is that in the first the actor at the front of the stage holds a short golden cane, which is omitted in the second painting. In addition, the colouring is generally brighter and more acid in the later version.
By placing the viewer apart from the audience and the performers, the stage-side standpoint gives a detached view of both. This unusual angle creates difficulties in reading some areas of the painting, in particular the figure of the nearest Pierrot and the space around him. While the garish green and pink striped column obscures much of his body, including his face, his disproportionate size relative to the stage creates a spatial ambiguity at the centre of the picture. Sickert overturns established conventions of composition with this arrangement and introduces a sense of disorientation.
The unusually intense chromatic accents in the painting are achieved by paint smudged dry and flat onto the canvas
This technique is used to great effect in the maroon colouring of the two Pierrots. Colour and light are also used to evoke the underlying melancholy of the scene. The twilight glow suffusing the audience and seafront in peach and purple is broken by the glare of phosphorous stage lights, the acid tints of which catch on the performers' clothes and faces. The juxtaposition of dying daylight with garish illuminations and a depleted audience underscores the end of season atmosphere. In the context of the First World War (1914-18) and the reports filtering back to Britain in the summer of 1915 of very heavy losses at the Front, the empty deckchairs may suggest the desolation of war.
Wendy Baron and Richard Shone (eds.), Sickert: Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy of Arts, London 1992, reproduced p.252, pl.88 (colour)
Wendy Baron, Sickert, London 1973, pp.151-2