The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

Walter Richard Sickert La Hollandaise c.1906

The title of this picture translates as ‘The Dutch Girl’ and may be derived from a minor character who is a prostitute in work by the French novelist Balzac. It is ambiguously applied to the nude figure shown here on a mattress among crumpled bedclothes, leaning on her right arm with legs clumsily crossed. Cast in deep shadow with no visible facial features, her left breast and thigh nevertheless glow in bright light, the pale skin emphasised with blue and olive tones as well as grey underpainting. Sickert’s signature iron bedstead features prominently; functional and hard-wearing but also unrefined, it echoes the urban working class interior scenes he preferred.
Walter Richard Sickert 1860–1942
La Hollandaise
c.1906
Oil paint on canvas
511 x 406 mm
Purchased 1983
T03548

Entry

Background

If there is one physical object which characterises Walter Sickert’s art, it is the iron bedstead which formed the centrepiece of numerous figure studies painted in London during the period 1905–9. This lowly piece of domestic furniture became the artist’s trademark, synonymous with both the subject matter and ethos of his paintings. His friend and model Cicely Hey, for example, described herself as the ‘last occupant’ of the iron bedstead,1 while the artist Diana White ironically asked Sickert if her niece, Regina Middleton, was required to buy one in order to become his pupil.2
The bed served a dual purpose as prop. Sickert organised his studio models in a series of poses based around the bed which allowed him to explore different figurative arrangements within an intimate environment. The physical appearance of the iron bedstead, however, was also important. It became symbolic of the social subjects Sickert sought to portray in his work, being functional and hard-wearing but also cheap and unrefined. It served as a metaphor for the urban working classes and the dingy London interiors – so beloved by the artist – which they inhabited. The iron bedstead appears principally in a number of pictures of the female nude from 1905–6, which later culminated in a series of works from 1908–9 known as the Camden Town Murder paintings.

Description

Walter Richard Sickert 'Nuit d'été' c.1906
Fig.1
Walter Richard Sickert
Nuit d'été c.1906
Private collection, Ivor Braka Ltd
© Estate of Walter R. Sickert / DACS
Photo © Ivor Braka Ltd, London
The painting shows a female nude half-lying and half-seated upon a bed covered in white sheets with one leg crossed over the other and her left hand pushing down behind her, almost as though she is in the process of getting up. The bed has been positioned face-on with the legs cut off by the bottom of the picture so that the viewer seems to be standing at its foot looking down upon the woman. There is a strong suggested light source to her left which illuminates the nearest planes of her body and casts the right-hand side of her face and torso into deep shadow. Little detail is discernible about the rest of the room apart from a partial view of a large mirror on the wall behind, in which can be seen a reflection. The art historian Wendy Baron has identified a related drawing in charcoal, graphite and chalk in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.3 In this drawing a nude of the same appearance and build is fully reclined on the bed with her right arm raised behind her head and her right leg thrown across the left, in the opposite direction to the painting. It is perhaps more closely related to another oil of the same period, Nuit d’été c.1906 (fig.1),4 which seems to show the same room as La Hollandaise. The same iron bedstead also appears in other drawings and paintings including Le Lit de fer c.1905 (private collection)5 and The Iron Bedstead c.1906 (The Earl and Countess of Harewood).6
No other painting seems to so readily bring to mind Sickert’s famous utterance that ‘the plastic arts are gross arts, dealing joyously with gross material facts’.7 There is no idealisation of the naked body. Rather, Sickert seems to revel in the model’s heavy form and unflattering arrangement of limbs. He makes no attempt to accommodate his technique in deference to the portrayal of flesh, but instead uses broad but controlled brushstrokes and livid patches of colour to emphasise the materiality of the painted surface. Consequently, some commentators have found his treatment of the figure disturbing, akin to a violation of the body. The diagonal streaks of paint on the thigh, for example, have been associated with a violent, misogynistic approach, while the use of various colours such as blue, olive green and grey can be suggestive of the discolouration of bruising.8 The art historian Rebecca Daniels has suggested that the triangular blank spaces of her face are indicative of the degenerative cavities created by tertiary syphilis.9
Edouard Manet 'Olympia' 1863
Fig.2
Edouard Manet
Olympia 1863
Musee d’Orsay, Paris
Photo © Musee d’Orsay, Paris, France / Giraudon / The Bridgeman Art Library
It is this absence of facial features which is particularly disquieting for the viewer. In the classical tradition of painting the female nude by artists such as Titian or Velázquez, the coy or deflected glance of the model, and the sense of an appropriate imagined setting and guise were key to the acceptability of looking at a naked woman. These conditions were altered, with explosive results, by Edouard Manet in Olympia 1863 (fig.2), where the sitter was recognisable as a contemporary prostitute who challenged the viewer with her direct and uncompromising gaze. Here the tradition is further problematised by Sickert. Like Olympia, ‘La Hollandaise’ is clearly not a fictitious character, but a ‘real’, modern woman who reclines on a bed with rumpled sheets, creating a sense of sordid disorder. Sickert has, however, removed the gaze of the model altogether by obliterating the details of the face, while, nevertheless, retaining the impression that she is looking out at the viewer. The impact of staring at this nameless, faceless woman has therefore struck many viewers as unsettling. The art historian Anna Gruetzner Robins has equated the distorted treatment of the body and its attendant connotations of prostitution and degeneracy with Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon 1907 (Museum of Modern Art, New York).10

‘The naked and the Nude’

As with much of Sickert’s work it is not entirely clear what effect the artist intended to create. When viewed in the context of Sickert’s views on the nude, the treatment of the body in La Hollandaise can be read, not as disturbing, but as painterly. In Sickert’s opinion paintings should always show ‘someone, somewhere’.11 He firmly outlined his beliefs in an article in the New Age, July 1910, entitled ‘The naked and the Nude’, in which he condemned art school practice which taught students to draw idealised, ‘lifeless’ nudes without reference to the real world. Instead, he articulated, the focus should be placed on drawing the clothed figure, or at least figures set within a real environment in which context their nakedness made some sense. He concluded:
Perhaps the chief source of pleasure in the aspect of a nude is that it is in the nature of a gleam – a gleam of light and warmth and life. And that it should appear thus, it should be set in surroundings of drapery or other contrasting surfaces.12
In La Hollandaise the mottled appearance of the skin is a study of the effects of colour and light on the body, and certain areas such as the left breast are elegantly and delicately painted. It is certain, however, that Sickert was aware of the complex multiplicity of the image, and despite intending the painting to be an aesthetic treatment of the body, he was by no means innocent of its provocative and disturbing possibilities.
Sickert went on to exploit these possibilities even further in his most notorious set of works, the Camden Town Murder paintings, 1908–9. These pictures, which referred to the recent local murder of a prostitute, caused a sensation when exhibited at the first Camden Town Group exhibition in June 1911. Once again, the ubiquitous iron bedstead featured as the central focal point around which Sickert organised a figural tableau. Unlike his earlier series, however, the artist now paired an unclothed female with a fully dressed male which greatly altered the context of the nude in an interior. In paintings such as The Camden Town Murder or What Shall We Do About the Rent? c.1908 (fig.3)13 and L’Affaire de Camden Town 1909 (fig.4),14 the inclusion of a clothed male protagonist introduces an implied narrative of violence and sex. Although not as extreme or overt, these sordid undercurrents are present in La Hollandaise.
Walter Richard Sickert 'The Camden Town Murder or What Shall We Do about the Rent?' c.1908
Fig.3
Walter Richard Sickert
The Camden Town Murder or What Shall We Do about the Rent? c.1908
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund B1979.37.1
© Estate of Walter R. Sickert / DACS
Walter Richard Sickert 'L'Affaire de Camden Town' 1909
Fig.4
Walter Richard Sickert
L'Affaire de Camden Town 1909
Private collection
© Estate of Walter R. Sickert / DACS
Photo © Photographic Survey, Courtauld Institute of Art

‘La Hollandaise’

The art historian Richard Shone has suggested that the title may have been inspired by one of the minor incidental female characters in the novels of Honoré de Balzac. Sarah Gobseck, a prostitute who appears in several of the stories of Balzac’s La Comédie humaine, is familiarly known as ‘la belle Hollandaise’. This ‘magnificent creature’ is purported to be the grand-niece of a Dutch money-lender who leads an immoral and wanton life and is eventually murdered by one of her clients. The title of the painting, therefore, is possibly intended to project connotations of prostitution, or, less specifically, to be representative of a generic grim realism. In Balzac’s Rise and Fall of Cesar Birotteau (published 1838), the character is described as ‘one of those mad-cap women who care nothing as to where the money comes from, or how it is obtained ... she never thought of the morrow, for her the future was after dinner, and the end of the month eternity, even if she had bills to pay’,15 a statement which may have appealed to Sickert as reminiscent of his own imprudent character.
The title of La Hollandaise translates as ‘The Dutch Girl’ and may reflect a sense of seriality when linked to other works of this period. It is one of a number of paintings by Sickert with similarly continental titles, for example La Jolie Veneitienne 1903–4 (private collection),16 La Belle Sicilienne c.1905 (David Fullen),17 La Belle Rousse c.1905 (private collection),18 Les Petites Belges 1906 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston),19 and The Belgian Cocotte 1906 (Arts Council Collection, London).20 Furthermore, as Wendy Baron has noted, the foreshortened figure and crossed placement of limbs recalls Sickert’s earlier group of Venetian nudes, for example, Conversations 1903–4 (private collection).21 Sickert himself was a cosmopolitan character, equally at home in London, Dieppe or Venice. Despite reducing the means of identifying one model from another to a label indicating their nationality, he was not actually interested in analysing cultural difference. Rather his titles reflect the sameness of his approach. His interest lay in finding models from within a certain class of woman and painting them in a variety of poses, both nude and clothed, against an interior that was uniformly dingy and unprepossessing. Essentially, Sickert believed, the experience of urban existence was the same wherever he went.

Nicola Moorby
March 2007

Notes

1
Cicely Hey, ‘Walter Sickert: Sketch for a Portrait’, BBC Home Service radio interview, British Library LP26655: Side 1.
2
W.S. Meadmore, Lucien Pissarro: Un Coeur Simple, London 1962, p.62.
3
Reproduced in Wendy Baron, Sickert: Paintings and Drawings, New Haven and London 2006, no.253.1.
4
Ibid., no.253.
5
Reproduced ibid., no.237 and Sickert: Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy, London 1992 (44).
6
Reproduced in Baron 2006, no.251.
7
Walter Sickert, ‘Idealism’, Art News, 12 May 1910, in Anna Gruetzner Robins (ed.), Walter Sickert: The Complete Writings on Art, Oxford 2000, p.229.
8
See Anna Gruetzner Robins, Walter Sickert: Drawings, Aldershot and Vermont 1996, pp.42, 95 n.42.
9
Rebecca Daniels, ‘Walter Sickert and Urban Realism: Ordinary Life and Tragedy in Camden Town’, British Art Journal, vol.111, no.2, Spring 2002, p.60.
10
Anna Gruetzner Robins and Richard Thomson, Degas, Sickert, Toulouse-Lautrec: London and Paris 1870–1910, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2005, p.182.
11
Walter Sickert, ‘On the Conduct of a Talent’, New Age, 11 June 1914, p.131, in Robins (ed.) 2000, p.377.
12
Walter Sickert, ‘The naked and the Nude’, New Age, 21 July 1910, p.277, in Robins (ed.) 2000, p.263.
13
Baron 2006, no.348.
14
Baron 2006, no.354.
15
Honoré de Balzac, Rise and Fall of Cesar Birotteau, 1838.
16
Reproduced in Baron 2006, no.206.
17
Reproduced ibid., no.240.
18
Baron 2006, no.235; reproduced in Royal Academy 1992, fig.123, p.158.
19
Reproduced in Baron 2006, no.261.
20
Reproduced ibid., no.265.
21
Wendy Baron, ‘The Process of Invention. Interrelated or Interdependent: Sickert’s Drawings and Paintings of Intimate Figure Subjects’, in Walter Sickert: The Camden Town Nudes, exhibition catalogue, Courtauld Institute of Art, London 2007, p.35, reproduced fig.13, p.31; Baron 2006, no.217.

How to cite

Nicola Moorby, ‘La Hollandaise c.1906 by Walter Richard Sickert’, catalogue entry, March 2007, 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-la-hollandaise-r1139029, accessed 11 November 2019.