Degas, Sickert and Toulouse-Lautrec: Room 7

Nudes and interiors

The 1900s

The pictures in this room reveal the intense preoccupation with the human figure apparent in the work of Sickert and his contemporaries during the 1900s.

These paintings present a distinctly modern, and sometimes disturbing, idea of the human figure. Darkness, fragmentation, mirrors and broken light create psychologically complex spaces. Many use what Sickert called ‘the unaccustomed points of view’ he had learnt from Degas.

The paintings of the artist’s studio reveal a new interest in the possibilities for creative expression and self-reflection within these closed, intimate spaces.

Some of the works in this room suggest an aggressive approach to sexuality. Rodin’s sculpted figure is frankly naked; the painted interior scenes imply a twilight world of prostitution, violence and melancholy. Arguably, they imply a firmly masculine perspective – for advanced artists, adventurous or even abusive representations of the female form demonstrated their skill and authority.

Sickert is the man of wine-coloured and blackish harmonies, of nudes thrown on a bed, at night.The critic Louis Vauxcelles on Sickert, 1905

Auguste Rodin Study for 'La Muse Nue, bras coupes' 1905-1906 Bronze

Auguste Rodin Study for 'La Muse Nue, bras coupes' 1905-1906Bronze

© Musée Rodin (photo Adam Redzka)

This figure was modelled from the painter, Gwen John. She is shown naked, with her leg raised, exposing her pubic area. This provided, as Rodin put it, a ‘quivering thrill of generous nature’.

This is the sculpted sketch for a larger bronze, which was exhibited in Paris in 1908. Rodin’s work influenced many contemporary painters. He helped encourage the revival of interest in classical sculpture apparent in many of the painted nudes in this room.

Walter Richard Sickert, ‘Two Women on a Sofa - Le Tose’ c.1903–4
Walter Richard Sickert
Two Women on a Sofa - Le Tose c.1903–4

Sickert painted a number of figure groups like this one in Venice, around 1903-4. In these, two women are arranged and rearranged in interacting groups.

The inspiration from these pictures came from a work by Degas, which showed a pair of laundresses at work. Sickert was also influenced by Edouard Vuillard’s small paintings of interiors.

Edouard Vuillard A Nude in the Studio around 1909-11 Pastel on paper mounted on canvas

Edouard Vuillard A Nude in the Studio around 1909-11Pastel on paper mounted on canvas

This painting presents a female nude in ways which may suggest the wider theme of artistic creativity. It contrasts with nude studies by Sickert and Bonnard, which can be seen nearby. Sickert’s pictures usually suggest a seedy rented setting; Bonnard’s paintings imply a comfortable domestic space.

Vuillard focuses instead on the studio as an artificial environment, where the artist’s will is paramount. He has played with the contrast between the model’s form and the angular shapes of the stacked canvasses and easel.

Walter Richard Sickert The Painter in his Studio 1907 Oil on canvas

Walter Richard Sickert The Painter in his Studio 1907Oil on canvas

© Estate of Walter R. Sickert 2005. All Rights Reserved, DACS

Sickert was interested in incorporating references to the classical nude within the naturalistic setting of the artist’s studio. This painting above is a particularly complex example.

The cast of a classical Venus you can see on the left of this picture is an intriguing detail. Bonnard kept a postcard of the same sculpture on his studio wall. The revival of interest in classical sculpture influenced the way artists like Bonnard, Sickert and Vuillard painted the nude.

Walter Richard Sickert, ‘Girl at a Window, Little Rachel’ 1907
Walter Richard Sickert
Girl at a Window, Little Rachel 1907

This painting evokes an area of London close to Sickert’s heart.

A young girl – Sickert described her as ‘a little, Jewish girl of 13 or so’ – is about to open the French windows of a London house. The view through the window shows Mornington Crescent gardens, in Camden Town. Sickert had painted this area of north London since the 1880s. But in the coming years it would become the dominant theme in his art.

This painting exerted an important influence on Sickert. He saw it when it was exhibited in London or Glasgow in 1891, and bought it for himself in 1902. Degas’s picture is painted using essence (oil paint thinned with turps). This allowed painting and drawing to be combined, in a way that Sickert imitated.

Edouard Vuillard Woman Reading 1910

Edouard Vuillard Woman Reading 1910Glue-based distemper on paper mounted on canvas

Kunstmuseum, Winterthur

Edgar Degas Woman at a Window 1871-2 Oil on paper

Edgar Degas Woman at a Window 1871-2Oil on paper

Image courtesy of The Samuel Cortauld Trust, Cortauld Institute of Art Gallery, London

Sickert later varnished this painting. This darkened it considerably, making it look more like his own works.

The painting shows the painter’s mother, although instead of being a portrait the picture sets out to use everyday objects to convey a sense of atmosphere and psychological interest. The detail of the mirror, presenting ‘real’ space as if it were a picture within this picture, is especially intriguing.

Pierre Bonnard The Mirror in the Green Room 1909 Oil on paper

Pierre Bonnard The Mirror in the Green Room 1909Oil on paper

DACS, London 2005

Paintings like the one seen above, show Bonnard’s preoccupation with nudes in domestic and studio settings, and his particular concern with the effects of mirror reflections.

Paintings like this must have affected Sickert’s treatment of similar themes. It may be significant that it was among several owned by the French dentist Dr Georges Viau, who also collected works by Sickert.

Walter Richard Sickert La Giuseppina against a Map of Venice 1903-1904 Oil on canvas

Walter Richard Sickert La Giuseppina against a Map of Venice 1903-1904Oil on canvas

© Estate of Walter R. Sickert 2005. All Rights Reserved, DACS

The model for this figure is a Venetian prostitute, called La Giuseppina. Her profession was made clear in another study of the same woman by Sickert, which he titled Putana a Casa (‘prostitute at home’).

This was one of a series of studies of women which Sickert painted in Venice in 1903–4. The map on the wall shows the Giudecca and the Zattere, the southern area of the city where he stayed.