Degas, Sickert and modern subjects

The 1880s

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

Edgar Degas Ballet Scene from 'Robert le Diable' 1876 Oil on canvas

Edgar Degas
Ballet Scene from ‘Robert le Diable’ 1876
Oil on canvas

V&A Images/ Victoria and Albert Museum

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.

Edgar Degas Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando 1879

Edgar Degas
Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando 1879
Oil paint on canvas
1172 x 775 mm

The National Gallery, London
© The National Gallery, London/Scala, Florence

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.’

William Stott of Oldham CMS Reading by Gaslight 1884 Pastel on paper of girl reading at table

William Stott of Oldham
CMS Reading by Gaslight 1884
Pastel on paper

Lent from a private collection

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’.

Philip Wilson Steer The Sprigged Frock 1890 Pastel on paper laid down on canvas, lady in green dress on sofa

Philip Wilson Steer
The Sprigged Frock 1890
Pastel on paper laid down on canvas

Lent by the William Morris Gallery, London
Image courtesy of Tate Photography/Andrew Dunkley & Marcus Leith

Philip Wilson Steer A Girl at her Toilet about 1892-3 Oil on canvas

Philip Wilson Steer
A Girl at her Toilet about 1892-3
Oil on canvas

Lent by the Williamson Museum and Art Gallery, Birkenhead. Wirral Museums Service

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’.

Edgar Degas Unhappy Nelly Pastel on paper, woman with frown

Edgar Degas
Unhappy Nelly
Pastel on paper

Museu de Montserrat

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.

Edgar Degas Jockeys Before the Start about 1878-9

Edgar Degas
Jockeys Before the Start about 1878-9
Oil and essence on paper

Image courtesy of the Trustees of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, The University of Birmingham

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.

Philip Wilson Steer, 'Mrs Cyprian Williams and her Two Little Girls' 1891

Philip Wilson Steer
Mrs Cyprian Williams and her Two Little Girls 1891
Oil on canvas
support: 762 x 1022 mm
Purchased with assistance from anonymous subscribers 1928© Tate

View the main page for this artwork

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.

James Guthrie Fire Light Reflections 1890

James Guthrie
Fire Light Reflections 1890
Pastel on board

Paisley Museum and Art Galleries

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.

Edgar Degas 1834-1917 Fan: Dancers and Stage Scenery about 1878-80 Gouache with gold highlights on silk, mounted on card

Edgar Degas 1834-1917
Fan: Dancers and Stage Scenery about 1878-80
Gouache with gold highlights on silk, mounted on card

Galerie Kornfeld, Bern

Edgar Degas Fan: Dancers 1879 Gouache, oil pastel and oil paint on silk

Edgar Degas
Fan: Dancers 1879
Gouache, oil pastel and oil paint on silk

Photo: Richard Nicol
Lent by the Tacoma Art Museum. Gift of Mr and Mrs W Hilding Lindberg

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.

Charles Conder 1868-1909 The Old Faun Pen and ink, gouache and silver paint

Charles Conder 1868-1909
The Old Faun
Pen and ink, gouache and silver paint

Private collection