Degas, Sickert and modern subjects
This room shows the deepening influence of Degas on British artists during the 1880s.
The works in this room include paintings by Degas that were known in Britain, and works by contemporary British artists. The most important of these was Walter Richard Sickert, the British artist who responded to Degas’s innovations in the most strikingly original ways.
Sickert and Degas both loved the artificial world of the theatre. The juxtaposition of their paintings shows their shared interest in unusual light effects and surprising angles. As Degas said, ‘You give a real effect by using false means’.
Degas’s works were exhibited and discussed frequently during this decade, and a powerful sense of his artistic identity emerged in magazine articles and reviews. William Thornley’s lithographs after his compositions, also shown in this room, were especially important in spreading knowledge of Degas’s art.
The one great French painter, perhaps one of the greatest artists the world has ever seen.
Walter Sickert on Degas, 1889
This painting shows the scene from Meyerbeer’s Gothic romance, Robert the Devil. Under Bertram’s orders, the nuns are brought back to life to haunt his son, Robert.
Ballet Scene was owned by Constantine Alexander Ionides, and was the earliest known work by Degas to enter a public collection in Britain. Sickert, who shared Degas’s fascination with the atmosphere of the stage, probably saw the painting in Ionides’s London home.
Degas shows the acrobat, Miss La La, performing her star turn at the Cirque Fernando, one of four permanent circuses in Paris. We gaze at her as if through a pair of binoculars, as she dangles from a rope, hanging on by her teeth.
Sickert saw this work in Degas’s Paris apartment. He said later: ‘Degas told us that he had been unable to come up with any perspective and that he had employed a professional for the drawing of the architecture of the ceiling.’
This is a portrait of the artist’s wife, Christina Mary Stott (CMS). It is one of a number of delicate pastels he produced during the 1880s. The intimate subject matter echoes the domesticity of Degas’s pastels, which Stott would have seen in the collections of British dealers and in exhibitions at the Grosvenor Gallery.
Stott achieved rapid success during this lifetime and exhibited regularly at the Paris Salon. Sickert described him as ‘one of the two greatest living painters of the world’.
Steer painted Rose Pettigrew on numerous occasions throughout the 1890s. Here (shown on the left) he cuts off the edge of the sofa to create the effect of a snapshot.
Like Degas, Steer enjoyed the versatility of pastel. His skill in this medium is evident from the hatched strokes in Rose’s brightly embroidered dress which dominates the picture space.
In this intimate painting (shown on the right) Steer shows Rose Pettigrew in her petticoat and stockings. The subject may have been inspired by Degas’s pastels of solitary female bathers. Like Rose, they are usually detached from the viewer, either looking away or hiding their faces.
Steer, fifteen years her senior, was obsessed with Rose. He thought she was ‘a lovely subject, very graceful … knowing how to pose’.
This portrait shows Sickert’s wife Ellen ‘Nelly’ Cobden. It was probably painted when Sickert and Ellen visited Degas in Paris in 1885.
Ellen was a supporter of women’s suffrage. She wears a loose dark tunic which at the time was associated with the Rationale dress movement. Degas may have added the inscription on the painting, ‘ça m’est egal’ (‘it’s all the same to me’) to draw attention to Ellen’s gender politics.
Degas achieved the effects of a grey, misty day on the racecourse by using essence: pigment thinned with turpentine which gave the effect of watercolour. The experimental composition was not lost on British critics. George Moore noticed ‘The principal horse’s head being cut in two by a long white post’.
Just as he painted dancers rehearsing rather than performing on stage, Degas invariably painted the moments before the start of the race, rather than the event itself.
Mrs Cyprian Williams, an amateur artist and the wife of an art collector, dominates the foreground of this painting. Despite the claustrophobic space the children appear remote from her, absorbed in their own activities
The unusual perspective of Steer’s composition was influenced by Degas’s work. Both artists were influenced by Japanese prints, made explicit here by the inclusion of the two Japanese dolls, and the Japanese fabric on the back of the armchair.
Two women are shown enjoying the warmth of a blazing fire in this extraordinary pastel. Guthrie experimented with this versatile medium in the 1890s. Here he makes the room appear to glow with fiery red and orange flames.
Several of the pastels Guthrie produced towards the end of the century show the everyday lives of the middle classes who lived around Helensburgh on the Firth of Clyde.
Degas started painting silk fans in the late 1870s, in imitation of Japanese fans. Here he experiments with the semi-circular format to re-create the atmosphere of a night at the theatre. The principal dancer is spot-lit, and surrounded by a group of ballerinas in tutus.
Fans were often associated with flirtatious behaviour; they became a common accessory for women in the 1890s.