Illustrated companion

In 1932 the American Amelia Earhart became the first woman to make a solo transatlantic flight. After landing in Ireland she flew to London where, arriving in a thunderstorm, she received a rapturous welcome at the airport. Sickert based his picture of this event on a newspaper photograph published the following day. The painting was exhibited only seven days later.

At seventy-two Sickert occupied a unique position. He viewed with reservation the successive continental influences of Fauvism, Cubism and Surrealism, yet in the interwar years he extended the expressive possibilities of art by openly basing his works on sources in popular and mass-media imagery and by the uninhibited yet masterly ways in which he realised these in paint. Rejecting studio photographs, Sickert particularly valued the amateur snapshot and the news photographer's snatched image, for their qualities of immediacy and pictorial surprise. 'Miss Earhart's Arrival' is a classic example of the kind of improbable but arresting composition which resulted. Almost all the backs of the crowd are turned to the viewer and Miss Earhart can only just be made out, her small, helmeted head to the right of the hat of the man in the blue raincoat. Freely inventing the colours, Sickert also accentuated the image's tonal contrasts and thickened the bold diagonal strokes which represent the pelting rain. The result of these decisions is a strange concentration and fixing of a moment of drama. The painting was described at the time as 'like a fragment of a magnificent modern fresco'.

From Sickert's periods in London, Dieppe, Venice and Bath the Tate Gallery owns pictures which show his love of architecture. The townscapes of the last two cities in particular remind us that architecture is a stage for the kaleidoscope of human activity. Sickert had originally been an actor. In his painting he saw most locations, from the dingy bedroom to the sweeping crescents of 'The Front at Hove' [N04651], as the setting for human episode. In the latter painting he himself appears on a bench beside a lady. It is one of many self-portraits in which, always the actor, he presented his own persona in ever-changing guises. Sickert's love of human interest shows, too, in his revival of the work of nineteenth-century illustrators centred on narrative and humour. The Tate's 'The Seducer' [T05529], an example of Sickert's 'Echoes', presents a scene of domestic passion transcribed into paint from a mid-Victorian illustration. In such small paintings Sickert used lively colours and a confident looseness (yet precision) of handling that were peculiarly his own. Paradoxically, the result enhanced the content of his blackand-white sources.

In his later years Sickert also continued to paint scenes from the theatre and made remarkable portraits of individual stars of stage and screen. Though based on an unposed, off-stage photograph, his portrait in the Tate of Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies as Isabella of France is eight feet high [Tate Gallery N04673]. The pictorial grandeur, the richness of colour and the broad use of paint in such works recall Sickert's love of the great Venetian masters. As a realist, a painter's painter and a living link with Degas, Sickert was admired by the Euston Road Group, yet the frankness and directness with which he translated matter-of-fact source material into fine art proved prophetic of later artists such as Bacon and Warhol.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.139