Walter Sickert was '. . . a kind of novelist', according to Virginia Woolf. And The Red Blouse (Mrs Barrett) demonstrates Sickert's skill at depicting the personality and nuances of his subject with a kind of novelistic intensity. At the time he painted this, Sickert felt that he wanted his paintings to portray'. . . the sensation of a page torn from the book of life'.
Mrs Barrett was Sickert's charwoman, a prosaic and traditionally unglamorous part of the artist's everyday life. However, there is nothing mean about Sickert's handling of his humble sitter in this richly glowing study. Mrs Barrett, dressed in what must be her best 'going out' blouse, sits calmly looking out at us, the viewers, as an equal. Sickert, with just a touch of irony, presents us with a well-rounded, interesting, attractive character-a charwoman with a life to lead and a story to tell.
Sickert had a serious message in 1908, and it is still relevant as we look at this dignified painting. 'The more our art is serious, the more it will tend to avoid the drawing-room and stick to the kitchen. The plastic arts are gross arts, dealing joyously with gross material facts . . . and while they will flourish in the scullery, or on the dunghill, they fade at a breath from the drawing room.' And later. . . 'Taste is the death of a painter'.
In Sickert's insistence on a kind of gritty, urban realism he is far removed from the prettified narrative picture of the Victorian era which had ended not long before, and which lingered on, enfeebled, in fashionable, tasteful art salons. More than other British artists in the Carrick Hill collection, Walter Sickert signifies the real break between British art in the twentieth century and its predecessors.
The Red Blouse (Mrs Barrett) was painted in about 1908 following Sickert's return from seven years in Europe in 1905, and the formation of the Fitzroy Street Group in 1907. Artists who exhibited with Sickert at his Fitzroy Street studio were interested in depicting the people, events and atmosphere of this rather sleazy, boarding-house part of north London around Camden.
Sickert treats the reality of Mrs Barrett, her red blouse and her stoic acceptance, as a serious, worthwhile subject. This is new. What is more, Sickert brings newly-learned, impressionist techniques of paint application to elevate the importance of his subject. The harmonious tones in this picture are dim but rich, and the mundane subject of the painting is endowed with a visual excitement previously reserved for the nobility.
This is a serious painting applied to a type of previously overlooked subject.
In 1916 Sickert moved away from London to Bath in order to escape the Zeppelin raids of the Great War. Though his palette lightened at this time, he brought to his architectural works the same subtle tonal approach that he had learned from Whistler nearly thirty years before. His painting Bath (c 1916-1918) shows that Sickert lost none of his skills as an urban realist when he left London for Bath's serenity. The street is empty and the walls of the houses present uncanny blank facades, shielding their occupants from the gaze of the viewer. Bath's buildings, treated in this serious manner, assume the solidity and importance of palaces in Venice. The artist uses strong outlines and colour in the shadows to bring forward the bones of the buildings, promoting them as characters in his 'novel'. This is Jane Austen's Bath, discreet, restrained, mannered, but somehow remaining in our memory for a long time after our first meeting.
Walter Richard Sickert was born in Munich in 1860 into an artistic family. His father initially discouraged him from becoming a painter, so he drifted into acting for three years from the age of eighteen. In 1881 he enrolled at the Slade, and then in 1883 studied with, and became an assistant to, Whistler. Before he ventured to live on the continent, mainly in Dieppe and Venice in 1898, Sickert was a committed and stimulating teacher at several private art schools.
Sickert continued experimenting throughout his life, and from 1927 increasingly based his work on popular press photographs and engravings. These late works were originally dismissed but are now as highly regarded as his Fitzroy Street paintings. Sickert died in 1942.
The Art Gallery of South Australia possesses an outstanding example of Sickert's later work-The Raising of Lazarus (1928-1929).