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Sickert in Dieppe: The Art of Modern Life
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Katy Norris, curator of Sickert in Dieppe, takes a look at the influence of the French seaside town on the work of Walter Sickert.
Walter Sickert’s enduring fascination with the popular Normandy resort of Dieppe represents a remarkable aspect of his career. Having maintained close personal links from childhood, the British painter was a regular visitor for over four decades and a permanent resident from 1898–1905.
Our 2015 exhibition Sickert in Dieppe sought to readdress the common perception that Sickert’s activity in Dieppe was limited to painting picturesque townscapes and instead show the formative influence of this vibrant seaside town.
Sickert tackled an extraordinary breadth of subjects that ranged from the harbour and fishing quarters to rural landscapes, as well as its shops, café culture and inhabitants. Here Sickert formulated his individual painting style, influenced by his acquaintance with Degas and his proximity to Impressionist painters such as Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro.
It was in Dieppe that Sickert sustained a longstanding connection to European culture and contemporary French painting that set him apart from his peers back in Britain.
Arriving at Dieppe
Sickert’s first significant visit to Dieppe as a practising artist was during his honeymoon in 1885. Initially he created ethereal harbour and beach scenes, lucidly painted in the manner of his teacher James McNeill Whistler.
It was as a result of his growing friendship with Degas at Blanche’s home, the Châlet du Bas Fort Blanc, throughout the summer of 1885 that major changes occurred in his work. Degas encouraged him to emphasise the everyday realism of his subjects and his paintings became more representational, based upon rigorously planned squared-up drawings and featuring strongly delineated architectural patterns. Degas’ example also inspired him to broaden his range of subject matter to include racecourse and circus scenes, the latter an important forerunner for his paintings of London music halls.
During its heyday in the 1890s, the bathing resort of Dieppe was a magnet for British visitors. In addition to the established ex-pat community, a growing circle of British artists and writers visited each summer from across the channel including Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley, Max Beerbohm and Arthur Symons. Sickert successfully infiltrated the varied social groups that had grown up in the town, switching effortlessly between the roles of middle class respectability and bohemian artist.
The works created by Sickert during this time reflect a hybrid of styles, combining the everyday pictorial detail learnt from Degas with the vague atmosphere of Whistler’s ethereal compositions.
In one painting of the Hôtel Royal created by Sickert in 1894 the eerie light of the setting sun echoes a description of the hotel’s facade in Symons’ poem ‘At Dieppe’ in which he wrote:
One stark monotony of stone / The long hotel, acutely white/ Against the after-sunset light / Withers greygreen / and takes the grass’s tone.
Featuring tricolour flags and elegant pleasure-seekers promenading on the wide lawns of the Boulevard Aguado overlooking the seafront, Sickert’s picture apparently represents a celebratory occasion or public festival. And yet, just as in Symons’ poem, the whole scene is tainted by the awareness of time passing, serving as a reminder of the inevitable impermanence of the summer tourist industry.
Fishing harbour and community
For Sickert the perfect antidote to the temporary influx of seasonal visitors was Dieppe’s native fishing community that inhabited the quarter east of the harbour known as Le Pollet. In 1899, soon after his separation from his first wife Ellen Cobden, Sickert settled with a local fisherwoman named Augustine Villain and her family in Neuville, a suburb just beyond Le Pollet.
The company that Sickert kept in Neuville and Le Pollet was very different to the circles that he mixed with in the west of the town. He learnt to speak the ancient dialect of the fishing community and he painted the harbour picturing the local fisherwomen making their way to and from the fish market on the Quai Duquesne.
Architecture and St Jacques Church
In these scenes Sickert typically kept to a limited range of subjects, concentrating on the narrow roads leading off from the Arcades de la Poissonnerie that connected the working harbour with the picturesque and commercial districts of Dieppe. The juxtaposition of contrasting architectural spaces seemed to fascinate him.
Above all it was the façade of St. Jacques that emerged as a prominent architectural motif in Sickert’s work. He interrogated the church from every possible vantage point and avenue, most notably representing the west front viewed from the Rue St. Jacques, as well as the church’s south portal viewed from the Rue Pecquet, which he painted in two distinct series created between 1900 and then again 1906 – 1910.
In these later paintings Sickert adopted the bright palette and thickly encrusted surfaces that were characteristic of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings. However he continued to paint from working drawings in his studio, a method contrary to the principles of the Impressionist method of painting en plein air. The execution of even his most spontaneous-looking pictures were nonetheless carefully calculated and rehearsed through preparatory drawings.
The landscapes around Dieppe
Despite his notoriety for representing townscapes in Dieppe, it was in his landscapes that Sickert was to refine his painting techniques. In 1912 Sickert and his new wife Christine Angus Drummond bought the Villa d’Aumale in Envermeu, a village set in the valley of the Eaulne ten miles inland from Dieppe.
Here during the summers of 1913 and 1914 he focused upon two subjects, the dovecot at the nearby village of Torqueville and a stone monument known as the obelisk that was set upon rising ground close to the Forest of Arques.
In these paintings Sickert moved beyond the use of thickly encrusted impasto advocated by Monet and Pissarro, as well as younger British painters such as Harold Gilman and Charles Ginner, developing his individual method of applying the pigment in a patchwork of flattened layers of colour.
Final years in Dieppe
Sickert left Dieppe at the outbreak of the First World War. It marked a watershed in his relationship with the town as he found himself cut off by the fighting in France and unable to travel to the continent. When he returned in 1919 it was with the intention of relocating permanently. However, this was disrupted when Christine’s ongoing battle with tuberculosis took a fatal turn.
The final years that Sickert spent living alone in Dieppe were marked by sadness following the loss of Christine. The period was characterised by his renewed interest in figure painting focusing upon interiors rather than outdoor scenes. He made a significant group of pictures set in his seafront studio on the Rue Aguado and he revisited old Dieppe themes centring on popular entertainment.
In addition to a painting of the circus troupe Cirque Rancy, Sickert continued working on pictures of performances at the cabaret-restaurant Vernet’s and a series based upon gamblers at Dieppe Casino that he started before Christine’s death. Filled with examples of pretence and play-acting, in these works Sickert seemed to be searching for a sense of belonging and meaning that ultimately could not be fulfilled amongst the unfamiliar throng of strangers.
After his return to London in 1922, Sickert all but cut his ties with Dieppe. He was known to have visited on one further occasion, for the funeral of his former mistress Augustine in 1930. Despite this, it was with a Dieppe picture that the artist was to make his debut as an Associate of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1925.