Illustrated companion

Nudes such as this are among the most complete expressions of Sickert's personal conception of continental Realism, exemplified by his remark, made in 1908, 'Taste is the death of a painter'. That he was referring to the middle-class notion of 'good taste' is made clear by his further comments two years later: 'The more our art is serious the more it will tend to avoid the drawing room and stick to the kitchen. The plastic arts [i.e. painting and sculpture] are gross arts, dealing joyously with gross material facts ... and while they flourish in the scullery, or on the dunghill, they fade at a breath from the drawing room'. However, as Sickert also emphasised, the aim of the artist is to make from this unpromising subject matter a painting of beauty, and to this end the physical facts of the subject should only be evoked in a general way, the painter concentrating on creating an aesthetic structure of colour, texture, and surface pattern. His art, wrote Sickert, was not '... occupied in a struggle to make intensely real and solid the sordid and superficial details of the subjects it selects. It accepts as the aim of the picture ... beauty'. Here, Sickert perfectly realises his aim of creating a painting which functions as a purely pictorial and aesthetic entity but which is charged with vitality from the 'gross material fact' on which it is based. The 'material fact' of this painting is a completely unidealised nude in an awkward, inelegant posture, on rumpled sheets, on an iron bedstead in a darkened interior. Sickert heightens the effect of almost embarrassing intimacy by painting his model from a very close viewpoint and looking slightly down so that, since she is sitting up, her face, breast and prominent thigh are brought close to the surface of the picture. Indeed, only the barrier of the iron bed rail separates the spectator from the naked thigh and the sexual parts hidden in shadow. But it is nevertheless clear that Sickert's concern here has been equally for the pattern of light and shade, muted colours and textured highlights in which he has rendered this scene, and in 1910 he also wrote: 'the chief source of pleasure in the aspect of a nude is that it is in the nature of a gleam - a gleam of light and warmth and life. And that it should appear thus it should be set in surroundings of drapery and other contrasting surfaces.'

The meaning of the title is not certain but has been linked to Sickert's known admiration for Balzac. In Balzac's novel Gobseck of 1830, the prostitute heroine, Sara Gobseck, is nicknamed 'la belle Hollandaise'.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.130