The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

Walter Richard Sickert Woman Washing her Hair 1906

Walter Sickert painted this work in his room at the Hôtel du Quai Voltaire, Paris, where he stayed in 1906. The strong diagonal of the mantelpiece in the foreground draws the viewer’s eye into the centre of the rectangular composition, where a woman, her head obscured by the line of the wall, leans over a basin ostensibly washing her hair. The voyeuristic sense of the scene follows in the tradition of modern French painting, which depicted naked women in contexts that were neither mythological nor academic.
Walter Richard Sickert 1860–1942
Woman Washing her Hair
1906
Oil paint on canvas
457 x 381 mm
Inscribed by the artist ‘Sickert’ in black paint bottom left
Bequeathed by Lady Henry Cavendish-Bentinck 1940
N05091

Entry

In October 1906 Walter Sickert exhibited ten pictures at the Salon d’Automne in Paris, and arrived in the capital from Dieppe in order to attend the opening. He took a room at the Hôtel du Quai Voltaire, on the Left Bank of the Seine directly opposite the Louvre, which he described as ‘my enchanting hotel a few doors off the house where Ingres died’, where apparently the ‘alcove of the beds in some of the rooms are beautifully lit’.1 Much favoured by artists and writers during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, previous patrons of the hotel included Richard Wagner, Charles Baudelaire and Camille Pissarro, who had painted a number of views from a window on the third floor during 1903.2 Sickert himself had first stayed there in 1883, in the company of Oscar Wilde (who later died there in 1900). The purpose of that visit had been to deliver Whistler’s iconic portrait of his mother to the Salon, but the trip also marked the occasion of Sickert’s first meeting with Edgar Degas, the French painter who was to have such a profound influence on the direction of his art. Possibly stimulated by memories of that significant moment in his career, or simply enthralled by the artistic ferment of Parisian life, during his visit in 1906 Sickert opted to stay in the hotel for some weeks, during which time he used the room as a studio and produced a large number of paintings and drawings. He wrote to his friend, the painter William Rothenstein, that he was ‘doing a whole set of interiors in the hotel, mostly nudes’, as well as some theatrical subjects.3 This burst of creativity led to a successful solo exhibition at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery in January 1907. Woman Washing her Hair dates from this period. Painted in the Hôtel du Quai Voltaire, it was exhibited at Bernheim-Jeune under the title, La Toilette, and later acquired by the gallery in 1910.4
The young, slim model for Woman Washing her Hair was a French girl named Blanche whom Sickert later described as ‘most enchanting ... the thinnest of the thin like a little eel, exquisitely shaped, with red hair’.5 He recalled that:
My little model ... Blanche ... called the part she sat upon ‘ma figure de dimanche’ and had endless other endearing sayings. I think the drollest comedy situation ever invented was given by her, as illustrating the correct attitude of a figure-model towards a lady she supposes to be the painter’s wife. She was sitting fully dressed with a big hat & plumes on a summer’s day, before a sitting, drinking a cup of tea with me. A lady whom she erroneously imagined to be my wife entered unexpectedly to visit me. ‘O pardon madame’ exclaimed Blanche, rose, hurled her hat, her [dress], & her clothes off & threw herself onto the bed in the position of my picture! For her to be caught hob-nobbing dressed was the inconvenience.6
In this picture Blanche is seen in profile, standing within a closet or bathroom space, bent at the waist with her legs straight and her back curved. As suggested by the title of the picture she is ostensibly in the process of washing her hair over a basin, although her head is hidden from the viewer by the line of the wall. There is a china jug on the floor at her feet and a pink towel draped over a stand behind her. Her clothes appear to have been left on a chair on the right-hand side of the picture, while in the left-hand foreground there is a fireplace surmounted by a shelf and a mirror. The eye of the viewer is led towards the centre of the composition by the strong diagonal of the mantelpiece. The patterned floral green wallpaper is echoed by the swirls evident within the design of the carpet. The art historian Wendy Baron has documented two further paintings which appear to feature the same model in the same corner of this interior. Le Cabinet de Toilette (Count Natale Labia, Cape Town)7 depicts Blanche standing full length with her arms raised behind her head, while Seated Nude (private collection),8 shows her seated with her hands on her hips. Baron has also noted a related sketch in chalk and pen, Nude Girl Lying on her Front (private collection),9 which appears to feature the same model, and two paintings, La Maigre Adeline and Jeanne,10 which depict full-length nudes lying across a bed, also in the same room. A further series of paintings and drawings dating from the same period features a plumper, more curvaceous sitter.11
Edouard Vuillard 'Interior with a Screen' 1909–10
Fig.1
Edouard Vuillard
Interior with a Screen 1909–10
The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London
Photo © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London
The painting has been frequently discussed by art historians as an example of Sickert’s connection to modern French painting. It follows the tradition introduced by Edouard Manet and the impressionists of painting naked women without the guise of a mythological or academic context, and with its cropped composition and voyeuristic glimpse of a girl at her toilette, it represents one of the most Degas-esque images of his entire oeuvre.12 However, the focus on horizontals and verticals within the pictorial space and the ‘horror vacui’ integration of the figure within the highly patterned interior also recall the intimiste paintings of Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard (see, for example, fig.1).13 Sickert would have seen Bonnard’s painting, Le Cabinet de Toilette, on display at the Salon d’Automne in 1906 at the same time as his own works and was perhaps inspired by its subject matter and appearance.14 As the art historian Anna Gruetzner Robins has discussed, the rectangular form of Sickert’s posed model is echoed by the linearity of the composition, a pictorial device he may have derived from Bonnard’s painting.15
As well as following the French genre of Manet’s Olympia 1863 (Musée d’Orsay, Paris),16 and other paintings of realistically portrayed contemporary women, the depiction of the nude is entirely in line with Sickert’s own firmly held views on the presentation of naked figures. He believed that paintings should always show ‘someone, somewhere’,17 and he condemned art school practice which taught students to draw idealised, ‘lifeless’ nudes without reference to the real world.18 Instead, he articulated, the focus should be placed on drawing people set within the context of a real environment where their nakedness made some sense. His approach here parallels his Venetian and London interiors of lower class women posed within shabby domestic spaces. The cropped view of the headless body creates an impersonal anonymity which is negatively prurient. Yet despite the cluttered claustrophobia of the hotel room and the voyeuristic sense of gazing at a woman who is unaware of being observed, the painting lacks the disturbing ambivalence and grimy atmosphere which pervades so many of his Camden Town pictures (see La Hollandaise, Tate T03548).

Nicola Moorby
July 2009

Notes

1
Walter Sickert, letter to Nan Hudson, [1908], Tate Archive TGA 9125/5, no.36.
2
See Camille Pissarro, Le Quai Malaquais et l’Institut 1903, in Impressionist / Modern Evening Sale, Christie’s, London, 23 June 2009 (lot 7, reproduced).
3
Walter Sickert, letter to William Rothenstein, 1906; quoted in Wendy Baron and Richard Shone (eds.), Sickert: Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy, London 1992, p.184.
4
24 December 1910, stock number 18500, Wendy Baron, Sickert: Paintings and Drawings, New Haven and London 2006, pp.[63] and 324.
5
Walter Sickert, letter to Nan Hudson, [1908], Tate Archive TGA 9125/5, no.36.
6
Ibid.
7
Reproduced in Baron 2006, no.272.1.
8
Reproduced ibid., no.272.2.
9
Ibid., no.272.3.
10
Ibid., nos.273–4.
11
Ibid., nos.275–7.
12
See, for example, Alison Smith (ed.), Exposed: The Victorian Nude, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2001, no.165, p.256 and Robert Upstone (ed.), Modern Painters: The Camden Town Group, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2008, no.56, p.120.
13
See, for example, Wendy Baron, ‘Sickert’s Links with French Painting’, Apollo, vol.91, March 1970, p.195, Penelope Curtis, Richard Shone et al., W.R. Sickert: Drawings and Paintings 1890–1942, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, Liverpool 1989, no.5, p.19, Smith (ed.) 2001, no.165, p.256, and Barnaby Wright (ed.), Walter Sickert: The Camden Town Nudes, exhibition catalogue, Courtauld Gallery, London 2007, p.36.
14
Baron 2006, [p.63]; see also Wendy Baron, Sickert, London 1973, p.93. Bonnard’s painting was reproduced in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, vol.36, 1906, p.475.
15
Anna Gruetzner Robins and Richard Thomson, Degas, Sickert and Toulouse Lautrec: London and Paris 1870–1910, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2005, pp.164–6.
17
Walter Sickert, ‘On the Conduct of a Talent’, New Age, 11 June 1914, p.131, in Anna Gruetzner Robins (ed.), Walter Sickert: The Complete Writings on Art, Oxford 2000, p.377.
18
Walter Sickert, ‘The naked and the Nude’, New Age, 21 July 1910, p.277, in Robins (ed.) 2000, p.262.

How to cite

Nicola Moorby, ‘Woman Washing her Hair 1906 by Walter Richard Sickert’, catalogue entry, July 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-woman-washing-her-hair-r1129528, accessed 22 January 2021.