The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

Walter Richard Sickert L'Américaine 1908

The focal point of this picture is the flat-crowned straw boater hat commonly worn by costermongers, or female street-sellers, during the Edwardian period. This characteristic accessory was known as an ‘American Sailor’ hat, from which the painting’s title is drawn. The figure’s downward gaze and delicately raised hand strike a flirtatious pose, reinforcing the positive stereotype of the working class woman’s attractive vitality. Her cobalt blouse and the strong reds, yellows and oranges of her complexion show the influence of the Camden Town Group’s bright palette on Sickert’s painting at the time.
Walter Richard Sickert 1860–1942
L’Américaine
1908
Oil paint on canvas
508 x 406 mm
Inscribed by the artist ‘Sickert – 1908.’ in red paint bottom right; traces of an obliterated signature in red paint top right.
Bequeathed by Lady Henry Cavendish-Bentinck 1940
N05090

Entry

The title of Sickert’s painting, L’Américaine, refers not to the nationality of the sitter but to her distinctive ‘American Sailor’ hat, a flat-crowned straw boater which was commonly worn during the Edwardian period and was a characteristic feature of the costume of the female London street-sellers known as costermongers. It is one of a number of images by the artist dating from 1908–11 which depict one or more models wearing this particular type of hat. In a letter to Mrs Hugh Hammersley, speculatively dated December 1907, Sickert wrote that he was currently working from ‘two coster girls in the hats called “American sailors” between whom my progress is as transparent & embarrassed as Garrick’s between the two muses’.1 The painting was first exhibited in Paris in 1909 as The American Sailor Hat, but by the time it was shown at the Goupil Gallery in London in 1925 it had acquired the more misleading label, L’Américaine. This perhaps reflects a tendency by Sickert to bestow French titles suggestive of nationality upon pictures of anonymous women, for example, La Jolie Veneitienne 1903–4 (private collection),2 La Belle Sicilienne c.1905 (David Fullen),3 La Belle Rousse 1905 (private collection),4 Les Petites Belges 1906 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston),5 The Belgian Cocotte 1906 (Arts Council Collection, London),6 and La Hollandaise c.1906 (Tate T03548).
A sketch of L’Américaine appears in an undated letter to his friends Ethel Sands and Nan Hudson in which Sickert reported that he was:
deep in two divine coster girls – one with sunlight on her indoors. You know the trompe l’oeil hat all the coster girls wear here with a crown fitting to the head inside & expanded outside to immense proportions. It is called an “American Sailor” (hat).7
Walter Richard Sickert 'The New Home' 1908
Fig.1
Walter Richard Sickert
The New Home 1908
Private collection, Ivor Braka Ltd
© Estate of Walter R. Sickert / DACS
Photo © Ivor Braka Ltd, London
In the same letter the artist described the second picture as featuring another costerwoman ‘in the sumptuous poverty of their class, sham velvet &c. They always wearing for every day [not] dirty, old, worn clothes but Sunday clothes. La [...] perpetuellement en dimanche. Le dénouement de parade.’8 This latter work can be identified as The New Home 1908 (fig.1).9 The art historian Wendy Baron has also listed a series of three further oil paintings and several drawings which feature one or more women wearing the ubiquitous straw hat.10 One charcoal sketch, exhibited at the Carfax Gallery in 1911 as The American Sailor Hat, relates directly to the composition of L’Américaine.11 It shows the same model in a similar pose with her left hand under her chin, although in this instance she is turned in profile to the far right. An annotated copy of the Carfax catalogue in the Tate Archive includes an inscription by the entry for this drawing which reads ‘Sally Waters green char[coal]’.12 This could indicate the name of the model, or may simply recall a further image by Sickert, a lithograph entitled Little Sally Waters 1907, published in a quarterly magazine, the Neolith, in May 1908.13 See also the discussion related to a drawing by a follower of Sickert, The Straw Hat (Tate N05309).
Coster-girls were a source of visual fascination for other artists and writers besides Sickert.14 The tradition of depicting street traders had been established as early as the sixteenth century through a genre of art known as ‘Cries’, romanticised images of individual urban characters identified with a particular trade or product.15 Produced by artists for patrons higher up the social scale, popular print series such as Marcellus Laroon’s The Cryes of the City of London Drawne after the Life 1688, Paul Sandby’s Twelve Cries of London 1760, and Francis Wheatley’s Cries of London 1790s, catalogued an array of national working class types, each peddling their various wares. These images portrayed an idealised, sanitised view of the lower classes which ignored the privations and drudgery of the social reality, and female street hawkers, in particular, such as the milkmaid or the flower seller, were often sentimentalised and aestheticised. The pink-cheeked protagonist of William Hogarth’s The Shrimp Girl c.1745 (National Gallery, London),16 for example, epitomises an appealingly robust type of femininity.17 The art historian Ysanne Holt has discussed how this tradition was perpetuated in the late nineteenth century by images of working class women which displaced contemporary middle class anxieties about urban degeneracy and decline.18 Paintings such as William Rothenstein’s The Coster Girls 1894 (Sheffield City Art Galleries) and William Nicholson’s series of wood-engravings, London Types 1898, isolated certain physical and emotional qualities popularly associated with the cockney woman, such as comely well-being, saucy insolence and heroic resilience.19 This type found ultimate expression in the Covent Garden flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, the pert heroine of George Bernard Shaw’s play, Pygmalion, published in 1913.
Walter Richard Sickert 'Two Women' c.1911
Fig.2
Walter Richard Sickert
Two Women c.1911
Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston
© Estate of Walter R. Sickert / DACS
Photo © Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston
Sickert’s Camden Town images frequently manipulate this artistic tradition of working class ‘types’.20 Although paintings such as The New Home (fig.1) and Two Women c.1911 (fig.2) exploit the melodramatic stereotype of the cockney woman as ill-used, unhappy or disinterested, the portrayal of the young girl in L’Américaine is complicit with the positive cliché of the female street-seller as a symbol of healthy and attractive vitality.21 The downward tilt of the model’s head, the rosy flush of her cheeks, the way the shadow of the hat veils her eyes and the mannered posture of the hand raised to her face all emphasise the flirtatious, earthy appeal of the urban working class woman.22 Sickert later gave this universal female type a name, christening her ‘Tilly Pullen’. In an article in the New Age in 1910 he explained that this breed of woman was of little artistic value as a traditional studio model, posed, for example, in the guise of a classical goddess.23 The trick was to ‘strip Tilly Pullen of her lendings and tell her to put her own things on again. Let her leave the studio and climb the first dirty little staircase in the first shabby little house.’24 Here, Sickert argued, dressed in her own clothes and in surroundings that meant something to her, she became ‘stuff for a picture’, as powerful an icon of beauty as the Parthenon, a Dürer, a Rembrandt, a Degas or a Renoir.25

Nicola Moorby
March 2009

Notes

1
Quoted in Wendy Baron, Sickert: Paintings and Drawings, New Haven and London 2006, p.368. The letter is dated by an unknown hand December 1907.
2
Reproduced ibid., no.206.
3
Reproduced ibid., no.240.
4
Reproduced in Sickert: Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy, London 1992, fig.123, p.158.
5
Reproduced in Baron 2006, no.261.
6
Ibid., no.265.
7
Walter Sickert, letter to Nan Hudson and Ethel Sands, [1908], Tate Archive TGA 9125/5.
8
Ibid.
9
Baron 2006, no.350.
10
Ibid., nos.350.1–7.
11
Ibid., no.350.6; reproduced in British and Irish Traditionalist and Modernist Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, Christie’s, London, 3 March 1989 (lot 309).
12
Drawings by Walter Sickert, exhibition catalogue, Carfax Gallery, London 1911 (32), Tate Archive. Reproduced in Anna Gruetzner Robins, Walter Sickert: Drawings, Aldershot and Vermont 1996, p.89.
13
Reproduced in Ruth Bromberg, Walter Sickert Prints: A Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London 2000, no.126.
14
See the flower girl in Charles Ginner’s Piccadilly Circus 1912 (Tate T03096).
15
See Mark Hallett and Christine Riding, Hogarth, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2006, pp.121, 124–7.
16
Reproduced at the National Gallery, London, http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/william-hogarth-the-shrimp-girl, accessed March 2011.
17
See Tate Britain 2006, no.63, pp.126–7.
18
Ysanne Holt, ‘London Types’, London Journal, vol.25, no.1, 2000, pp.34–51.
19
See ibid.
20
See Nicola Moorby, ‘Portrait / Figure / Type’, in Modern Painters: The Camden Town Group, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2008, p.97.
21
See Tate Britain 2008, pp.102, 106.
22
Ibid., p.101.
23
Walter Sickert, ‘The Study of Drawing’, New Age, 16 June 1910, in Anna Gruetzner Robins (ed.), Walter Sickert: The Complete Writings on Art, Oxford and New York 2000, pp.247–9.
24
Ibid., p.247.
25
Ibid., pp.247–8.

How to cite

Nicola Moorby, ‘L’Américaine 1908 by Walter Richard Sickert’, catalogue entry, March 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-lamericaine-r1139014, accessed 22 January 2021.