Walter Richard Sickert

Pierrot and Woman Embracing


Not on display

Walter Richard Sickert 1860–1942
Gouache and chalk on paper
Support: 410 × 311 mm
frame: 550 × 450 mm
Bequeathed by Lady Henry Cavendish-Bentinck 1940

Display caption

This is a preliminary sketch for Venetian Stage Scene, a painting now in a private collection. It combines Sickert's interests in architecture and theatre with a poignant element of fantasy.A central character of Italian and French pantomime, Pierrot was identified by his loose white clothes, white-painted face, tall hat and air of melancholy. The subject was to re-emerge a decade later, in Sickert's wartime meditation Brighton Pierrots, also on display here.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry


In previous Tate catalogues this drawing has been dated to c.1903–4. But as Wendy Baron, author of the 2006 catalogue raisonné of Sickert’s paintings and drawings, has pointed out its draughtsmanship, and the handling of paint in the finished oil version, suggest an earlier dating of c.1901.1 Additionally, this is most probably the drawing Sickert described as ‘the Pierrot and popolana’ in a letter to his patron Mrs Hulton in 1901, which he said he had sent to the Fine Art Society in London from Venice.2 Sickert’s Venetian pictures from 1901 were generally cityscapes of familiar landmarks, and the only other figure subjects he is known to have made are an oil portrait of the restaurateur and vegetable wholesaler Signor de Rossi,3 and a drawing of Mrs Hulton.4 When he returned to Venice in 1903, Sickert had an artistic breakthrough: he began depicting pairs of figures in ambiguous scenes, as in A Marengo and Le Tose (Tate N03621 and N05296). In Neuville in 1902 Sickert had experimented with making a small number of drawings of a nude model in a bedroom;5 but the setting of pairs of figures in distinct arrangements in his Venetian works was a new development. In such works, Sickert seems to deploy his models like actors on a stage, at once putting them in naturalistic poses but ones that are in fact highly contrived, thus creating dramatic tension. We might view Pierrot and Woman Embracing as some sort of transitional work in this process of evolution.
The action takes place outdoors, away from the bustle of tourist Venice. The viewer is cast almost in the role of voyeur, glimpsing an erotically charged moment of intimacy. The costumes of the Pierrot and his companion suggest this may be a scene during the Carnival of Venice, a time notorious as a period of revelry, and, in particular, sexual intrigue and licence. The masks people wore for anonymity and the relaxation of social codes concerning sexual relations encouraged a proliferation of fleeting liaisons. Traditionally, the carnival started on 2 February and ended the day before Ash Wednesday. By the time Sickert was in Venice, carnival was reportedly somewhat in abeyance, although it had perhaps not completely died out. In the closing decades of the nineteenth century, pictures of Venetian working class life were extremely popular, with fisher girls being a particularly favourite subject in the Royal Academy annual exhibitions (see Tate N05296).

Robert Upstone
May 2009


Wendy Baron, Sickert: Paintings and Drawings, New Haven and London 2006, no.185.1.
See Wendy Baron, Sickert, London 1973, p.328. Sadly no records at the Fine Art Society survive to confirm this.
Hastings Museum and Art Gallery; reproduced in Baron 2006, no.184, and Sickert in Venice, exhibition catalogue, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London 2009 (31).
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; reproduced in Baron 2006, no.186.
See ibid., nos.190–1.
Alastair Grieve, Whistler’s Venice, New Haven and London 2000, pp.185–6.
I am grateful to Alastair Grieve for this information.
Martin Green and John Swan, The Triumph of Pierrot: The Commedia dell’Arte and the Modern Imagination, New York 1986, p.1.
Ibid., pp.26, 189, 193–4.
Ibid., p.194.
See Matthew Sturgis, Aubrey Beardsley: A Biography, London 1998, pp.80–1.
Baron 2006, no.185 reproduced, and no.185.1.
Ibid., no.185.3.

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