The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

Walter Richard Sickert A Marengo c.1903-4

The two women shown gossiping on a bed, Carolina dell’Acqua and La Giuseppina, were prostitutes who often modelled for Walter Sickert during his time in Venice. In Italy Sickert developed new ideas concerning pairs of figures in interiors that would later inform his ‘Camden Town Murder’ series. The simple colour palette, scant detail and fluid brushstrokes suggest Sickert’s rapid execution, evoking the scene’s immediacy.
Walter Richard Sickert 1860–1942
A Marengo
c.1903–4
Oil paint on canvas
381 x 457 mm
Inscribed by the artist ‘Sickert’ bottom left
Purchased (Clarke Fund) 1922
N03621

Entry

A Marengo was painted during the visit Walter Sickert made to Venice between the autumn of 1903 and the summer of 1904. He worked hard on this trip and it was an important time of development in which he evolved new ideas concerning pairs of figures in interiors.1 In Venice, Sickert led an extremely ordered existence, writing to his friend and patron Mrs Hulton on 1 January 1904 that he painted, ‘models from 9 to 11 and 1 to 4, and when the weather is fine a landscape or so’.2 He went on to explain that he got most of his sitters from the restaurant where he usually took his meals, the Giorgione di San Silvestro, run by Signor de Rossi.3
Wanting to be in the heart of bustling Venetian working class life, Sickert took rooms at 1057 Rio Terra di San Silvestro, near the Rialto,4 although he also kept up a studio at 940 Calle dei Frati. The winter of 1903–4 was one of the wettest Venice had experienced, and this led Sickert to abandon view painting and concentrate solely on figure compositions. He wanted to capture the vitality of working class characters in the city: a fisherman with a felt hat, a blind man, and the wrinkled features of the old woman ‘Mamma Mia Poveretta’ all intrigued him.
But more than any others, the models who absorbed Sickert the most were two young women who sat regularly for him: Carolina dell’Acqua and La Giuseppina. Both were prostitutes. Introduced to Sickert by her friend La Giuseppina, Carolina dell’Acqua was reputed to have got her nickname through a fear of water,5 while Sickert himself often referred to her simply as ‘La Carolina’. The dark-haired Giuseppina was one of Sickert’s favourites, and as the solo sitter in his picture Putana a Casa 1903–4 (private collection),6 his title, which translates as ‘Whore at Home’, confirmed her profession. Both women appeared singly in several of Sickert’s paintings, but it is the series of paintings of them paired together, as in A Marengo, that seized his interest.
Sickert wrote to his friend Jacques-Émile Blanche:
From 9 to 4 it is the uninterrupted pleasure of these kind, obliging little models who laugh, to amuse me with smutty talk while posing like angels. They are happy to be there, and are not hurried. By four I am ready only to close the shutters, lie on my bed and sleep the sleep of the just until seven.7
The pictures were made in Sickert’s painting room on the top floor at Calle dei Frati, rather than in his living quarters at Rio Terra di San Silvestro. The bed and other items of furniture, such as the Empire-style sofa in Le Tose (Tate N05296), were essentially studio props, to complete the naturalism of his observations. Pictures such as A Marengo are exercises in the concept of viewing life through a keyhole, which Sickert learned from Edgar Degas. The two girls chat and gossip on the bed in relaxed attitudes that seem entirely natural, but are nevertheless poses that they held for an hour. Their seemingly unselfconscious positioning, however, allowed the viewer the illusion of observing them, as it were, in their natural state, almost like a social anthropologist.
Walter Richard Sickert 'Les Vénitiennes (Venetian Women)' 1903–4
Fig.1
Walter Richard Sickert
Les Vénitiennes (Venetian Women) 1903–4
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Anonymous gift. 38.776
© Estate of Walter R. Sickert / DACS
Photo © 2011 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
A picture closely related to A Marengo is Les Vénetiennes 1903–4 (fig.1). Here the figures are lying with their legs up on the bed, but despite being physically closer together, almost entwined, they seem more aloof from each other, seized by lassitude or boredom; one of them stares out at us directly. It was with such Venetian works as The Beribboned Washstand 1903–4 (private collection)8 that Sickert developed Degas’s idea of the ‘boudoir nude’, showing a naked woman in the environment of a bedroom. In other pictures, Sickert developed the theme of A Marengo to also embrace the nude, by having one of the girls naked on the bed conversing with a clothed friend, as in Conversations 1903–4 (private collection)9 or Giuseppina and the Model 1903–4 (private collection).10 It was a line of development that was to gestate and reach conclusion five years later in Sickert’s ‘Camden Town Murder’ series, with canvases such as What Shall We Do for the Rent? c.1907–9 (fig.2) and the sinister L’Affaire de Camden Town 1909 (fig.3), each featuring a clothed man and a naked woman on a bed.
Walter Richard Sickert 'Summer Afternoon or What Shall We Do for the Rent?' c.1907–9
Fig.2
Walter Richard Sickert
Summer Afternoon or What Shall We Do for the Rent? c.1907–9
Fife Council Libraries & Museums: Kirkcaldy Museum & Art Gallery
© Estate of Walter R. Sickert / DACS
Photo © Antonia Reeve
Walter Richard Sickert 'L'Affaire de Camden Town' 1909
Fig.3
Walter Richard Sickert
L'Affaire de Camden Town 1909
Private collection
© Estate of Walter R. Sickert / DACS
Photo © Photographic Survey, Courtauld Institute of Art


‘To most contemporary viewers’, Sickert’s biographer Matthew Sturgis has written, ‘two women, whatever the state of their dress or undress, lounging together upon a bed, suggested only one setting: the brothel.’11 In Sickert’s figure pairings there is certainly a subtext of sex, felt most strongly in those pictures where one person is naked. Sickert would have been familiar with Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s pictures of brothel scenes, which are often characterised by a similar languid inaction; Degas also made brothel pictures. From his contact with those who knew Sickert, the art historian Denys Sutton believed that Sickert certainly visited a brothel in Venice, so that, in the manner of Toulouse-Lautrec and Degas, he could make sketches.12 Whether Sickert’s relations with Giuseppina and Carolina extended to a physical dimension is unknown, but it seems likely. He admitted he had sex with prostitutes in Venice to his patron Sir William Eden,13 and told Jacques-Émile Blanche that in the winter of 1903–4 he caught his first dose of venereal disease, writing, ‘Enfin me voilà tout à fait “grown up”.’14
In his sequence of Venice figure pictures, Sickert’s aim was to work rapidly and give a sense of immediacy. It was this quality that he described to his friend Nan Hudson in offering her one of the pictures from the series as a gift: ‘Do you remember one I had last Saturday of 2 Venetian girls in shawls, talking? It is one I like for the reason that it was immediately expressed during the pose, & is without thoughts or explanation.’15
To Blanche he detailed his ideal method of painting:
Canvases size 8 prepared in grey (black and white) with oil. A good coat. The first session: everything is laid in from nature covering all the canvas and not permitting the model to move until it is all down. That takes about an hour more or less without moving. When the canvas is covered I start another. Three days or more later (canvases kept round a stove that is always lit) I take up the series again. With a large brush I wash the canvas with linseed oil, which I remove afterwards with blotting-paper, and then I finish off, being guided more by my own work from the first impression, than by the model, and keeping within the proportions first indicated, whether they seem right to me or not.16
The ‘size 8’ canvas Sickert mentions is a French canvas size, measuring 381 x 457 mm, which is the size of A Marengo and most of the other Venice figure pictures. In another letter to Blanche, Sickert stated that he had adjusted his technique, although not his ambition to paint quickly:
I have gained a great deal of experience working from 9 to 4 ... Not to paint in varnish. Not to embarrass the canvas with any preparations. And so to give the paint every possible chance of drying from the back of the canvas. To paint with ½ raw oil and ½ turps. To state general tones once and once only. And when this first coat is dry, to finish, bit by bit. I had the bad habit of re-stating the tones all over an indefinite number of times, and getting no further, not improving the colour, and making the canvas, especially in the darks, more and more disagreeable.17
There is some ambiguity about the title of A Marengo. A ‘marengo’ is an old Italian coin worth about twenty lire, and the apparent concern on the face of the right-hand figure might suggest that either she has lost this amount or needs to find it to pay a debt. This meaning would certainly accentuate the frisson of the scene, implying that the girl may have to sell her body to get the money. Alternatively, Sickert’s biographer Robert Emmons suggested that the title might refer to the famous Battle of Marengo in which Napoleon defeated the Austrians in 1800 near the northern Italian village of that name, after which Napoleon named his horse, so suggesting that Sickert’s scene might be one of disagreement or conflict.18 However, the women look more like they are sharing confidences than arguing, and Emmons’s explanation does not account for Sickert’s use of the definite article in the title. The most convincing explanation is supplied by the art historian Lou Klepac, who has noted Sickert’s tendency to spell foreign names or words incorrectly. In Venetian dialect ‘a remengo’ means ‘to hell with it’, which fits the scene of women gossiping.19 A further possibility is that Sickert may have communicated the title verbally, and it became jumbled when shown in his absence at the New English Art Club in 1906.20
An early owner of A Marengo was R.E.A. Wilson. An old friend of Sickert’s, he founded the Savile Gallery in the mid-1920s. He staged exhibitions of Sickert’s work twice a year, bringing the artist renewed prominence as well as income from healthy sales.21

Robert Upstone
May 2009

Notes

1
See Robert Upstone, Sickert in Venice, exhibition catalogue, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London 2009.
2
Quoted in Wendy Baron and Richard Shone (eds.), Sickert: Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy, London 1992 (34).
3
Quoted ibid; Sickert’s portrait of Signor de Rossi is reproduced as fig.109 (Hastings Art Gallery).
4
Matthew Sturgis, Walter Sickert: A Life, London 2005, p.321.
5
See Lilian Browse, Sickert, London 1960, p.27.
6
Reproduced in Wendy Baron, Sickert: Paintings and Drawings, New Haven and London 2006, no.201.
7
Walter Sickert, letter to Jacques-Émile Blanche; quoted in Sturgis 2005, p.328.
8
Reproduced in Baron 2006, no.200.
9
Reproduced ibid., no.217 and Royal Academy 1992 (41).
10
Reproduced in Baron 2006, no.217.1 and Royal Academy 1992, fig.118.
11
Sturgis 2005, pp.329–30.
12
Denys Sutton, letter to Wendy Baron, 21 November 1974, Sutton Papers, University of Glasgow Library; see Sturgis 2005, p.330.
13
Walter Sickert, letter to Sir William Eden, University of Birmingham Library, AP22/23/3; see Sturgis 2005, p.330.
14
Walter Sickert, letter to Jacques-Émile Blanche, copy in Sutton Papers, University of Glasgow Library; see Sturgis 2005, p.330.
15
Walter Sickert, letter to Nan Hudson, undated [?1907], Tate Archive TGA 9125/5.
16
Walter Sickert, letter to Jacques-Émile Blanche, Institut de France, Paris; quoted in Sturgis 2005, p.710 n.62.
17
Walter Sickert, letter to Jacques-Émile Blanche, Institut de France, Paris; quoted in Sturgis, 2005, p.710 n.62 and in Royal Academy 1992 (34).
18
Dr Robert Emmons, letter to Tate Gallery, 27 November 1958, Tate Catalogue file.
19
See Sickert: Drawings, exhibition catalogue, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth 1979, p.12.
20
Sickert was away in France for the summer and autumn of 1906, returning to London briefly in December.
21
Sturgis 2005, pp.552–3.

How to cite

Robert Upstone, ‘A Marengo c.1903–4 by Walter Richard Sickert’, catalogue entry, May 2009, in Helena Bonett, Ysanne Holt, Jennifer Mundy (eds.), The Camden Town Group in Context, Tate Research Publication, May 2012, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/camden-town-group/walter-richard-sickert-a-marengo-r1136451, accessed 25 June 2019.