Walter Richard Sickert The Servant of Abraham 1929

Artwork details

Artist
Title
The Servant of Abraham
Date 1929
Medium Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions Support: 610 x 508 mm
frame: 815 x 717 x 75 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1959
Reference
T00259
Not on display

Catalogue entry

Entry

Background and subject

The Servant of Abraham is one of a trio of important late pictures in which Walter Sickert combined self-portraiture with the persona of a Biblical character. Painted at the artist’s studio at 1 Highbury Place, Islington,1 it was first exhibited at the Savile Gallery, London, in 1930 where it was shown in conjunction with another self-portrait, Lazarus Breaks his Fast c.1927 (Estorick Collection, London).2 The culmination of the series was the large painting, The Raising of Lazarus c.1929 (fig.5),3 first exhibited at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition in 1932.
Thérèse Lessore 'Squared-up Photograph of Walter Richard Sickert' c.1929
Fig.1
Thérèse Lessore
Squared-up Photograph of Walter Richard Sickert c.1929
© Estate of Thérèse Lessore Photo © Islington Local History Centre
The visual source for the painting was a snapshot of Sickert taken by his third wife, the artist Thérèse Lessore, which was then squared-up for transfer onto canvas (fig.1). Taken slightly from below so that the subject appears to loom over the viewer, the photograph is a close-up shot of the sixty-nine-year-old artist looking directly and soberly at the camera. Sickert has been lit from behind so that his face is largely in shadow, but his head, with the distinctive square-cut beard, is dramatically outlined in white light. The critic of the Connoisseur compared the artist’s dramatic use of ‘angle’ with modern forms of image-making such as photography and cinematography.4 The composition of the painting closely follows the general appearance of the source photograph. However, Sickert employed subtle alterations to change the mood and visual impact of the image. The selection of a small-scale canvas is effectively offset by the larger-than-life size of the painted head, which almost completely fills the pictorial space. Sickert has slightly cropped the available background above the head, which enhances the uncompromising sense of a forceful presence. The self-assured, penetrating gaze of the photograph is also replaced by a more ambivalent and complex expression. The Servant of Abraham is universally recognised as an emotionally powerful painting, but the precise nature of that emotion, and the meaning of the cryptic title so deliberately emblazoned across the canvas, has proved difficult to define.

Reception

Biblical self-portraits

Ownership

Nicola Moorby
July 2005

Notes

1
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery Catalogues: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, vol.2, London 1964, p.640.
2
Reproduced in Wendy Baron, Sickert: Paintings and Drawings, New Haven and London 2006, no.681 and Sickert: Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy, London 1992 (103).
3
Baron 2006, no.698.
4
Connoisseur, April 1930, Walter Sickert press cuttings, Islington Public Libraries, London.
5
Genesis 24.
7
Genesis 15, verse 2.
8
Baron 2006, no.330.
9
Baron 2006, no.408.
10
Manchester Guardian, 20 February 1930.
11
‘Richard Sickert: An Enigmatical Painter in a New Mood’, Morning Post, 19 February 1930.
12
Walter Bayes, ‘Art: Mr Sickert and Others’, Saturday Review, 1 March 1930.
13
Royal Academy 1992, p.290.
14
David Peters Corbett, Walter Sickert, London 2001, p.66.
15
Daily Mail, 2 January 1931.
16
Daily Express, 5 June 1929.
17
Royal Academy 1992, p.338.
18
All three reproduced ibid., p.338, figs.229–331 respectively; Baron 2006, nos.706, 708.1, 729, 730 and 737.
19
Reproduced in Royal Academy 1992 (128).
20
Wendy Baron, Sickert, London 1973, no.450.
21
Royal Academy 1992, p.288.
22
T.W. Earp, ‘Painting without Tears’, New Statesman, 1 March 1930.
23
Walter Richard Sickert, ‘The Twentieth Century’, in Twentieth Century French Art, exhibition catalogue, Leicester Galleries, London 1932, in Anna Gruetzner Robins (ed.), Walter Sickert: The Complete Writings on Art, Oxford 2000, p.614.
24
Ibid.
25
Chamot, Farr and Butlin 1964, p.640.
26
‘Mr Sickert’s New Pictures’, Manchester Guardian, 20 February 1930.
27
James Hyman, The Battle for Realism, New Haven and London 2001, p.122.
28
Andrew Forge, Helen Lessore and the Beaux-Arts Gallery, exhibition catalogue, Marlborough Fine Art, London 1968, p.6.
29
Information from John Lessore, October 2004, Tate Catalogue file.

About this artwork