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Bathers, Dieppe, by Walter Richard Sickert


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About the artwork

This picture is one of a series of six large Dieppe subjects that were commissioned by M. Menton, the proprietor of the Hotel de la Plage (later Metropole) to decorate his hotel restaurant. Menton disliked the pictures so much that rather than installing them he sold four of them, including this one, to an American artist, Frederick Fairbanks, who was married to a friend of Sickert's. The Walker bought this picture in 1935 - the same year that a Sickert exhibition was held at the gallery.

The view in the picture is, as from a promenade or walkway, looking down towards the beach. There is no horizon. The mixed male and female bathers are shown cropped and off-centre. This arbitrary - almost snapshot - look of the picture was deliberate.

Much of Sickert's art, like Degas’, was concerned with painting the image glanced, with seizing the instantaneous and mutable. Despite the apparent random nature of the subject, it is constructed with considerable artifice. For example, in the triangular grouping of the three striped bathers, in the use of flesh and red accents to assist recession and in the striking contrast between the taut slab-like paint-handling of the vertical figures and the much looser strokes of the horizontal bands of wave and foam, reminiscent in the violet and turquoise-green comma-like strokes of Monet's water-lily pictures.

Sickert and Monet had jointly visited Monet's first water lily exhibition in Paris in 1900. Degas thought Monet's pictures ‘a doctrinaire and megalomaniac vegetarian series’. Sickert, in contrast, seems to have taken in ideas from another artist faced with the problem of describing a large area of water.

The striped costumes worn by the three men are of a type that could be hired from the Dieppe Casino and there is a photograph of Sickert wearing one, standing calf-deep in the sea at Dieppe. He may have used this photograph to help him compose the picture.

Other of the six Dieppe restaurant pictures can be seen at Manchester City Art Gallery, Rochdale Art Gallery, The City Art Gallery, Glasgow and in private collections.

‘Taste is the death of a painter. He has all his work cut out for him observing and recording. His poetry is in the interpretation of ready-made life. He has no business to have time for a preference.’

W R Sickert 1908

Walter Richard Sickert (1860-1942) was the most prominent of the group of late nineteenth and early twentieth century British artists who absorbed the ideas and techniques of modern French painters. Although beginning as a pupil of Whistler and assisting in the printing of Whistler's famous ‘Venice series’ of etchings, it was the discussions that Sickert had with Degas in Paris and at Dieppe in the summer of 1885 that came to shape the direction that his art would take.

Sickert's subjects include music halls, dancers, singers, street scenes, low-life bedroom views and portraits. The Walker Art Gallery has outstanding examples of his work in oil, drawing and print.

Sickert's Danish father was an artist and his mother, who was the illegitimate daughter of the astronomer Richard Sheepshanks, was an Irish dancer. Sickert from the age of 18 worked as an actor under the pseudonym ‘Mr Nemo’ and toured England with several well-known companies. He appeared in Liverpool in Henry V in April 1880 and there is a photograph of him as a bowler-hatted 19 year old taken at that time in New Brighton. Sickert's love of the stage and acting was life-long and greatly influenced his art.

The fashionable French Channel resort of Dieppe was a favourite holiday spot for the Sickert family -Sickert's mother had been brought up there. Sickert visited each summer from 1879 and he lived there between 1898 and 1902 after his troubled divorce. He made so many pictures of the port and its streets and markets that his friend and fellow artist Jaques Emile Blanche described him as ‘The Canaletto of Dieppe’.