Walter Richard Sickert

L’Américaine

1908

Artist
Walter Richard Sickert 1860–1942
Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 508 x 406 mm
frame: 748 x 649 x 55 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Bequeathed by Lady Henry Cavendish-Bentinck 1940
Reference
N05090

Not on display

Display caption

Despite its French title this is a painting of a London 'costergirl', a woman who worked selling food from a barrow. Sickert was exhibiting paintings both in France and in London, and the title was probably given after it had been shown with his dealer Bernheim Jeune in Paris. He wrote 'Here I am deep in two divine costergirls - one with sunlight on her indoors. You know the trompe l'oeil hat all the coster girls wear here with a crown fitting the head inside and expanded outside to immense proportions. It's called an 'American sailor'(hat)'.

Gallery label, September 2004

Catalogue entry

Entry

The title of Sickert’s painting, L’Américaine, refers not to the nationality of the sitter but to her distinctive ‘American Sailor’ hat, a flat-crowned straw boater which was commonly worn during the Edwardian period and was a characteristic feature of the costume of the female London street-sellers known as costermongers. It is one of a number of images by the artist dating from 1908–11 which depict one or more models wearing this particular type of hat. In a letter to Mrs Hugh Hammersley, speculatively dated December 1907, Sickert wrote that he was currently working from ‘two coster girls in the hats called “American sailors” between whom my progress is as transparent & embarrassed as Garrick’s between the two muses’.1 The painting was first exhibited in Paris in 1909 as The American Sailor Hat, but by the time it was shown at the Goupil Gallery in London in 1925 it had acquired the more misleading label, L’Américaine. This perhaps reflects a tendency by Sickert to bestow French titles suggestive of nationality upon pictures of anonymous women, for example, La Jolie Veneitienne 1903–4 (private collection),2 La Belle Sicilienne c.1905 (David Fullen),3 La Belle Rousse 1905 (private collection),4 Les Petites Belges 1906 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston),5 The Belgian Cocotte 1906 (Arts Council Collection, London),6 and La Hollandaise c.1906 (Tate T03548).
A sketch of L’Américaine appears in an undated letter to his friends Ethel Sands and Nan Hudson in which Sickert reported that he was:
deep in two divine coster girls – one with sunlight on her indoors. You know the trompe l’oeil hat all the coster girls wear here with a crown fitting to the head inside & expanded outside to immense proportions. It is called an “American Sailor” (hat).7
In the same letter the artist described the second picture as featuring another costerwoman ‘in the sumptuous poverty of their class, sham velvet &c. They always wearing for every day [not] dirty, old, worn clothes but Sunday clothes. La [...] perpetuellement en dimanche. Le dénouement de parade.’8 This latter work can be identified as The New Home 1908 (fig.1).9 The art historian Wendy Baron has also listed a series of three further oil paintings and several drawings which feature one or more women wearing the ubiquitous straw hat.10 One charcoal sketch, exhibited at the Carfax Gallery in 1911 as The American Sailor Hat, relates directly to the composition of L’Américaine.11 It shows the same model in a similar pose with her left hand under her chin, although in this instance she is turned in profile to the far right. An annotated copy of the Carfax catalogue in the Tate Archive includes an inscription by the entry for this drawing which reads ‘Sally Waters green char[coal]’.12 This could indicate the name of the model, or may simply recall a further image by Sickert, a lithograph entitled Little Sally Waters 1907, published in a quarterly magazine, the Neolith, in May 1908.13 See also the discussion related to a drawing by a follower of Sickert, The Straw Hat (Tate N05309).

Nicola Moorby
March 2009

Notes

1
Quoted in Wendy Baron, Sickert: Paintings and Drawings, New Haven and London 2006, p.368. The letter is dated by an unknown hand December 1907.
2
Reproduced ibid., no.206.
3
Reproduced ibid., no.240.
4
Reproduced in Sickert: Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy, London 1992, fig.123, p.158.
5
Reproduced in Baron 2006, no.261.
6
Ibid., no.265.
7
Walter Sickert, letter to Nan Hudson and Ethel Sands, [1908], Tate Archive TGA 9125/5.
8
Ibid.
9
Baron 2006, no.350.
10
Ibid., nos.350.1–7.
11
Ibid., no.350.6; reproduced in British and Irish Traditionalist and Modernist Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, Christie’s, London, 3 March 1989 (lot 309).
12
Drawings by Walter Sickert, exhibition catalogue, Carfax Gallery, London 1911 (32), Tate Archive. Reproduced in Anna Gruetzner Robins, Walter Sickert: Drawings, Aldershot and Vermont 1996, p.89.
13
Reproduced in Ruth Bromberg, Walter Sickert Prints: A Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London 2000, no.126.
14
See the flower girl in Charles Ginner’s Piccadilly Circus 1912 (Tate T03096).
15
See Mark Hallett and Christine Riding, Hogarth, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2006, pp.121, 124–7.
16
Reproduced at the National Gallery, London, http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/william-hogarth-the-shrimp-girl, accessed March 2011.
17
See Tate Britain 2006, no.63, pp.126–7.
18
Ysanne Holt, ‘London Types’, London Journal, vol.25, no.1, 2000, pp.34–51.
19
See ibid.
20
See Nicola Moorby, ‘Portrait / Figure / Type’, in Modern Painters: The Camden Town Group, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2008, p.97.
21
See Tate Britain 2008, pp.102, 106.
22
Ibid., p.101.
23
Walter Sickert, ‘The Study of Drawing’, New Age, 16 June 1910, in Anna Gruetzner Robins (ed.), Walter Sickert: The Complete Writings on Art, Oxford and New York 2000, pp.247–9.
24
Ibid., p.247.
25
Ibid., pp.247–8.

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