At Dulwich Picture Gallery

Peter Campbell

Sickert’s Venetian pictures come after the music-hall paintings and before the Camden Town nudes and interiors. He was in the city for long periods at the turn of the last century, but even after he left, while living and working in London and Dieppe, he went on producing paintings based on things he had done and seen in Italy. However, the 50-plus paintings in Sickert in Venice (at Dulwich Picture Gallery until 7 June) are from the Venetian years and were largely painted there.

‘Ponte della Guglie sul Cannaregio’, c.1896
‘Ponte della Guglie sul Cannaregio’, c.1896

It was a low point in his life. His well-off wife had divorced him, he was short of money, and his work was not in demand. Venice was a very cheap place to live; it offered popular subject matter; and Venetian scenes sold well. Sickert saw no harm in following a market, particularly as he believed both that painters should ‘watch the markets, like any other skilled artisan that has his wits about him’ and that ‘quality has always had its market value’ – though its audience might be small. You didn’t have to paint potboilers: you could be sensible about the things people might buy – and about how big they should be. (Small pictures were in every way less demanding.) He set up a studio in a flat over a bar; the portrait (it is a good one) he painted of the proprietor, Signor de Rossi, is in the exhibition, as are two pictures of his establishment, Ladies’ Bar and Trattoria. It was probably through Rossi that he recruited models – in particular two prostitutes, Carolina del’Acqua and La Giuseppina, and the old woman painted as Mamma Mia Poveratta. But on his first visits, before he began painting people, he painted the buildings – mainly the most famous ones.

Of all painted versions of Venice, Sickert’s are the darkest. Where Turner is refulgent he is crepuscular. He is still recognisably Whistler’s pupil, but even Whistler’s Nocturne: Blue and Gold – St Mark’s, Venice (which is reproduced in the catalogue) is mistier and less weighty than Sickert’s night pieces, while the gloom of Sargent’s Venetian interiors, penetrated by shafts of light in which fabrics glow and crockery sparkles, and his studies of the effect of light reflected from water in canal scenes, have a brilliant ease of transcription that makes Sickert’s working up of drawings, and even his rarer paintings from life – Interior of St Mark’s, for example, or Santa Maria Formosa – seem heavy. But the weight is intellectual too: Sickert thought about what he was doing in the way an artist dedicated to a more fluent, natural transcriptive technique did not need to.

It is the darkness, the ascendancy of grey, brown and black that strikes you first. Light in general offers up the world for inspection in a range of luminosities – from eye-searing sunlight to faintest moonlight. The Impressionists showed that you could drop the dark end of the range and increase the illusion of sunlight. Sickert drops the high end, often reserving his highlights for little patches like those that record rays of the setting sun as they strike a high point on a building or the sudden glitter of reflected sky in water. There are two pictures of The Rialto Bridge and Palazzo dei Camerlenghi – one a tighter cropping of the other. In both, an unseen sun lights the sky. Direct sunlight hits the top of the palazzo and, in the wider view, the underside of the bridge. In the close-cropped version the drama of fading day is established by the way a brightly lit cornice emphasises the darkness of the front of the building and its reflection in the canal. The effect is monumental, the emphasis on fading light a little threatening.

Following Degas, Sickert worked mostly not from life but from drawings made from life, and sometimes, probably even early on, from photographs. His position was, more or less, that you mustn’t copy a photograph but could use it as you would a drawing to establish the structure you would work over in paint. Late in life he made newspaper pictures a regular source; the last comparative illustration in the catalogue, Variation on Peggy (1934–35), is a picture in green (her) and pink (Venice) done from a monochrome clipping from the Radio Times. Some drawings were used several times, such as the one of the Palazzo dei Camerlenghi. Another, of the front of St Mark’s, squared to be copied and enlarged on canvas, opens the exhibition. It was the starting point for paintings with, respectively, green, apricot and blue skies. In one of them the same drawing seems to be reversed left to right – the drawn image was transferred to canvas in several ways, some of which would result in just such a flip. His series do not therefore suggest, as Monet’s views of Rouen Cathedral at different times of day do, that the intention is to watch light change and capture fugitive effects. They are more like variations on a theme: the drawing is a scaffolding, the starting point for imaginative forays.

All this makes sense for a painter who thought, experimented, worked things out and, incidentally, didn’t have time to waste. What might seem intuitive and accidental – the rough directness of the brushstrokes in the pictures of women, for example – was to a degree calculated. Sickert began life as an actor and sometimes the easiest way to read his work is to think of the painter as a cool intellect calculating spontaneous effects. In his writing he is always interesting about the practice of painting. In a letter to the painter Jacques-Emile Blanche he described his ideal method of working on the figure paintings: a first session in which ‘everything is laid in from nature’, then ‘three days or more later (canvases kept round a stove that is always lit)’, the painting now dry, he finishes off, ‘being guided more by my own work from the first impression, than by the model’. The blending of colours that wet-on-wet oil paint encourages – a winning, but potentially meretricious technique, stunning in some of Sargent’s Venetian interiors – was put aside.

One should not lose sight of the end towards which Sickert worked. The quasi-photographic framing and cropping, the dark palette, the grouping and posing of models, the shadowed buildings, the implied intimacy of small rooms all bring an implication of narrative drama that is missing from French Impressionism, and they place Sickert, despite his French affiliations (Degas in this context is not an Impressionist), closer to a northern contemporary like Munch. Nor is he so far from Victorian narrative painting: Orchardson’s palette is almost as autumnal as Sickert’s and his narratives can in their own way be similarly oppressive.

Comparison emphasises his particular strengths. He knew painting could do things photography could not, and during figurative painting’s last days as an accepted way of picturing the world, he put together a body of work that still makes one think about the nature, purpose and potential (narrative and aesthetic) of man-made representations. The Venetian pictures can be read as an evidence of how those things stood around 1900.