The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

Walter Richard Sickert, ‘Idealism’

The Art News, 12 May 1910, p217..

By Walter Sickert
I cannot, unfortunately, lay my hand on a recent utterance of Rodin’s which seems to me to put idealism in its proper place. It was published in The Art News of a few weeks ago, so that most of my readers can probably refer to it, and substitute for my very lame recollection the well-chosen and weighty phrase of the master.
The drift of his definition was this. He pointed out that while work based on the study of nature had the infinite circle of nature herself as its field, what is called ideal work was limited to the miserably limited source that is to be found in the preference of a finite individual.
I was endeavouring to express the same truth when I said in my article on Whistler in The Fortnightly that taste was the death of a painter. It substitutes for the wholesome diet that the whole field of nature should yield him, the ever-narrowing atrophy, the gradual starvation that must ensue when his food is limited to the consumption of his poor finite self. I cannot think of an artist who illustrated in a single life the results of these two contrasted diets as clearly as did Watts. I saw not long ago some small versions, completed studies, I imagine, for some of his allegories, and it struck me as appalling that the painter of the portraits in Holland House, of Lady Holland in a Chinese hat, of Russell Gurney, should have allowed a turgid confusion of thought to lead him into the perpetration of such senseless monstrosities.
We all have a natural timidity in speaking the truth about work which, we are loudly and frequently assured, is done with the noblest and highest motives. And the venerable veteran, whose distinguished appearance was in itself almost enough to silence criticism, promulgated pretty regularly, by the mouths of his chosen interviewers, the lofty nature of his aims. It is never a grateful task – the critic has not the beau rôle, who tackles pretensions of this kind, insidious in their insistence, and eminently sympathetic in their appeal. But sooner or later, in the interest of truth and clarity, this has to be done. Our English fault is to be too “nice.” Don’t I know the pestilent phrase, “So-and-So is always very nice about my work”? To be too “nice” is as criminal in a critic as it would be in a dentist or a surgeon. Why I, who am the mildest-mannered man alive in private life, should be called upon by fate incessantly to practise these rather brutal and disagreeable excisions I don’t know. I believe that I am of service to the artists of my generation, and the next, by trying to put into words observations, and conclusions that are very serious realities to us.
To what, then, does it seem to me that the sentimental abandonment of nature led Mr. Watts in the studies I am speaking of? To the negation of all the things that are of the essence of painting and draughtsmanship. Contour is abandoned; light and shade exist no more. The forms are epicene; colour non-existent. It lingers only as a symbol – as much local colour as can be expressed by words. The sexes are distinguished solely by the fact that the male is painted mahogany, and the female the colour of a candle. They flop and they float, and there are laurel leaves, I think, and a raw light for the sky.
What has been written of the imaginative painting of the great masters has naturally been mostly written by writers. So that while volumes are filled with explanations of the sublimity and the significance in the figures of Michaelangelo [sic] or Veronese, the writers fail to note that these figures are always drawn and painted. The beauty and significance that they express, they are only able to achieve by means of a strong rendering of the gross material facts of bulk and shape, and colour. Such are the conditions of the very existence of plastic art.
Attention to a detail of treatment will perhaps illustrate this best. To attempt to cope with a wider field would, perhaps, be to risk vagueness. I am thinking of some frescoes of Raphael’s that are familiar to us all. I will take the figure of Juno in the group with Venus and Minerva. After all, it would be difficult for a lady to hold higher rank than did Juno. But Raphael conveys her to us by a most material form, with a fleshy lustrous face, like one of Rowlandson’s wenches. Her hands are gross, material hands, the hands, let us say, of a milkmaid. They hang from the wrists much more like a sailor’s hands do than like the almond-tipped fingers that clutch the satin of Mr. Sargent’s portraits.
It is because the portrait-painter is not free – he fills a useful and honourable place in a world of supply and demand – that I continue rather to draw attention to work outside these limitations. The more our art is serious, the more will it tend to avoid the drawing-room and stick to the kitchen. The plastic arts are gross arts, dealing joyously with gross material facts. They call, in their servants, for a robust stomach and a great power of endurance, and while they will flourish in the scullery, or on the dunghill, they fade at a breath from the drawing-room. Stay! I had forgot. We have a use for the drawing-room – to caricature it.
© Estate of Walter R. Sickert

How to cite

Walter Richard Sickert, ‘Idealism’, in The Art News, 12 May 1910, p217., in Helena Bonett, Ysanne Holt, Jennifer Mundy (eds.), The Camden Town Group in Context, Tate Research Publication, May 2012,, accessed 21 May 2024.