Walter Sickert, The Theatre of the Young Artists, 1890, oil on canvas, 52 x 65 cm, The Atkinson, Southport, Reproduced by kind permission of The Atkinson, Sefton MBC
Dieppe grew to become one of the most fashionable coastal resorts in France in the nineteenth century. Sickert’s first significant visit as a practising artist was during his honeymoon, shortly after his marriage to his first wife Ellen Cobden in June 1885. Initially he created ethereal seascapes painted in the manner of his teacher James Abbott McNeill Whistler. However as a result of his growing friendship with Edgar Degas important changes occurred in his work. Degas encouraged Sickert to increase the structure and architectural detail in his paintings through the use of preparatory drawing and he was inspired to broaden his subjects to include scenes of popular entertainment in the town.
During Dieppe’s heyday in the 1890s, the Casino and elegant promenade attracted a new set of free-spirited bohemians known as the ‘decadents’, including the illustrator Aubrey Beardsley, the painter Charles Conder and the symbolist poet Arthur Symons. Sickert engaged with the group through his contribution to daring periodicals such as the ‘Yellow Book’ which were planned around the tables of popular cafés in Dieppe.
The era was characterised by a sense of nostalgia for the passing century. Sickert’s enigmatic paintings captured the fatalistic attitude of the fin de siècle, combining the everyday detail taught to him by Degas with the vague atmospheres of Whistler’s paintings. Meanwhile his new friendships with the ‘decadents’ put a strain on his marriage to Ellen. By 1898 Sickert had relocated to Dieppe alone.