An American Colourist

Until 16th October 2022, the Royal Academy of Arts is exhibiting the works of Milton Avery, one of North America’s greatest 20th-century colourists. Milton Avery: American Colourist is the first ever exhibition of Avery’s artwork on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Falling between Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism, Avery’s work is full of carefully balanced colour, which became more harmonious and simplified as his career progressed.

Milton Clark Avery was born on 27th March 1885 in Altmar, New York to Esther March (d. 1926) and Russell Avery (d. 1905). His father was a tanner, and the family moved around a bit until they settled near Hartford, Connecticut. Avery attended school until age 16, after which he started working at the Hartford Machine and Screw Company. Four years later, Avery enrolled in an evening class at the Connecticut League of Art Students to learn “commercial lettering”. He hoped this would improve his job prospects, but part way into the course, he transferred to drawing classes and dedicated the rest of his life to art.

Avery’s early works, dating between 1910 and 1918, reveal the influence of American Impressionist painters, who produced impasto paintings of landscapes. Gradually, Avery began using thinner paint, making his paintings flatter and less natural. He also started using arbitrary colours, often creating a distorted reality. As he moved away from Impressionism, Avery stopped painting from life, preferring to make quick sketches on-site and return to his studio to recreate them in oil paint.

From 1920, Avery started spending his summers in the art colony of Gloucester in Massachusetts. Despite his aspirations to be an artist, Avery took on other jobs, such as construction work, to pay for his tuition. Avery could finally focus on his painting after meeting the illustrator Sally Michel (1902-2003) at the art colony in 1924. Two years later, Avery and Sally married and moved to a studio complex in New York. While Sally worked as an illustrator for the New York Times, Avery devoted himself to painting and studying the arts.

During the late 1920s, Avery began exhibiting his work, starting with the 11th Annual Exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in 1927. After attending several shows, the Philips Memorial Gallery purchased Winter Riders, the first of his paintings bought by a museum. The art style shows Avery was beginning to move away from Impressionism, although he still used some techniques, such as layering thick paint to create a sense of texture.

Avery and Sally continued to spend their summers in Gloucester until the birth of their daughter March in 1932. During the summer months, Avery sketched and painted beach scenes, but around the time of his daughter’s birth, he began experimenting with cityscapes too. At this stage of his career, Avery’s paintings still contained a lot of energy, such as Chariot Race (1933). The carnival scene is a stark contrast to Avery’s other landscapes, which have the typical layout of a foreground, middle ground, background and horizon.

After settling in New York with his wife and daughter, Avery became part of the artistic community in the city. He joined the Valentine Gallery and held his first solo exhibition in 1935. The attention he received from this and other small exhibitions helped widen his friendship circle, which included the artists Mark Rothko (1903-70) and Adolph Gottlieb (1903-74). The Averys hosted many friends and acquaintances at their apartment, where they discussed art and read poetry.

Rothko and Gottlieb visited Avery daily, paying great interest in Avery’s work. Known for his prolificness, Avery often completed a painting every day, which inspired his fellow artists. Despite his popularity, Avery did not talk much during gatherings, preferring to sit, listen and sketch the surroundings. Many of the objects he drew ended up in future paintings, as did portraits of the people in the room.

Avery’s early portraits, such as March in Babushka (1940), which depicts his daughter wearing a headscarf, became less detailed than his earlier landscapes. Despite winning a prize for portraiture in 1919, Avery did not produce many portraits in his early years. After the birth of his daughter, he moved away from landscape to focus on portraits of people within cityscapes. This change also signalled a new approach to colour and form, which he simplified and stripped of any layers or sentiment. Yet, in 1947, Avery held his first retrospective exhibition titled My Daughter March, which emphasised his love for his family.

During the 1940s, Avery stopped creating formal portraits but continued to include human figures in his work. Most of these figures lost any distinguishing features, such as the faceless girl in Seated Girl With Dog (1944), whose face is split between light and shadow with two contrasting colours. Avery no longer used the colours of nature, instead experimenting with various hues and tones. By thinning the paint, Avery covered large areas of the canvas with a single colour, focusing on the shape rather than perspective. He used the tone of colour to determine the atmosphere of the scene rather than rely on intricate details.

Avery’s change of style in the 1940s established him as one of America’s leading colourists. In hindsight, he greatly influenced the next generation of artists, who moved on to Abstract Expressionism and other forms of modern art. Avery revealed the possibilities of colour, particularly non-associative or unnatural tones, in scenes of everyday life.

Toward the end of the 1940s, Avery’s health began deteriorating, and doctors advised him to slow down and stay home. Avery did not follow medical advice and suffered a major heart attack in January 1949. After a six-week hospital stay and months of recuperating at home, Avery returned to the art scene with an exhibition at the newly founded Grace Borgenicht Gallery in New York.

In 1952, Avery took his first and only trip to Europe with his family. They visited France and the United Kingdom, documenting his journey through sketches. Many of these drawings made their way into his paintings, such as Excursion on the Thames (1953). Avery sat on the steps of the Tate Gallery (Britain) to make the preliminary drawings for this painting. When speaking about his visit, Avery said, “I was visiting the Tate museum and got tired and went outside for a few minutes and saw this excursion boat and made this small sketch, and when I got back to New York City I painted a big canvas from it.”

With March now a young woman, Avery and his wife felt able to accept invitations to undertake summer residences, such as at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, and Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York. In 1957, Avery spent the summer in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he began creating large-scale paintings. The larger the canvas, the less detail Avery included. Instead, he focused on bold colours to draw people’s attention to the artwork. Yet, Avery still depicted some form of scene rather than a random pattern.

During the winter of 1959, Avery and Sally travelled to Key West, Florida, where the warmer climate was better for Avery’s health. During their stay, Avery completed several simplified beach scenes, such as Boathouse by the Sea (1959). Using only four colours, orange, blue, yellow and black, Avery created a sense of depth and perspective, although some people may need to know the title before the scene becomes clear. The large black portion of the painting represents the roof of the boathouse, presumably viewed from above by the artist. The yellow and blue represent the sea, and the orange is the sky. Either Avery intended to depict the sunset, or he used orange to contrast with the colour of the water.

Other seaside scenes feature less conventional colours, such as the pinks in Sails in Sunset Sea (1960). This painting differs from other works because Avery has included squiggly lines to represent the waves or ripples on the water’s surface. The choice of colour may not be as random as it first appears. Capturing only the two sailing boats rather than a larger scene, Avery has focused on the colours of the setting sun on the water. Whilst it may not be one of his better works, Avery’s thought process is still visible.

Avery suffered a second heart attack in 1960 and spent the following year recovering in New York. Most likely against doctors’ orders, he continued to produce paintings. In 1963, Avery was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, one of the oldest learned societies in the United States. Members are nominated and elected by peers, making it a great honour to be accepted into the Academy.

On 5th March 1964, Avery, now critically unwell, completed his final painting, Hills and Sunset Sky. The following day, Avery went into intensive care at Montefiore Hospital in New York. He remained there for the rest of the year, eventually passing away on 3rd January 1965 at the age of 75. He was buried in the Artist’s cemetery in Woodstock, New York, and his wife donated all his personal papers to the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution.

“He was, without question, our greatest colourist. … Among his European contemporaries, only Matisse—to whose art he owed much, of course—produced a greater achievement in this respect.” So said the art critic Hilton Kramer (1928-2012) in his 1981 book about Avery. Several artists thought of Avery as an American Matisse due to his colourful compositions, which echoed the works of Henri Matisse (1869-1954). Critics initially disliked Avery’s work, claiming it was too abstract, yet when Abstract Expressionism became popular, they said his work was too representational. Due to these opinions, Avery does not belong to a particular art category. Instead, he bridges the gap between two art movements, Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism.

Avery was not a rule follower, which allowed him to experiment with his art rather than conform to the accepted standards of the early 20th century. Visitors to the Milton Avery: American Colourist will see the progression of Avery’s work from Impressionism to something not quite Abstract Expressionism. Some will prefer his early paintings and not understand why he altered his style, but others will appreciate his use of colour and his ability to express himself in new ways that inspired a new generation of artists.

Milton Avery: American Colourist is open at the Royal Academy until 16th October 2022. Standard tickets cost £15, although concessions are available. To guarantee entry, booking is recommended.


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Walter Sickert

Until 18th September 2022, Tate Britain is exhibiting the works of Walter Sickert, one of Britain’s most influential artists of the 20th century. Taught by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) and influenced by Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Sickert became a prominent figure in the transition from Impressionism to Modernism. As painting techniques developed in Britain, so did Sickert’s artwork, and he was not afraid to depict the lives of ordinary people and places rather than the idealised scenes of yesteryear.

Walter Richard Sickert was born on 31st May 1860 in Munich, Germany, although neither of his parents were German. His father, Oswald Sickert (1828-85), was a Danish painter of landscapes and genre scenes who travelled to Munich for his studies. Sickert’s mother, Eleanor Louisa Henry, was the daughter of the English astronomer Richard Sheepshanks (1794-1855). Following the German annexation of Schleswig-Holstein when Sickert was eight years old, the family moved to London and obtained British nationality.

Sickert initially attended University College School, an independent school in Hampstead established by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), but transferred to King’s College School in Wimbledon at the age of 11. Despite his father’s artistic influence, Sickert initially pursued a career in acting and joined Sir Henry Irving’s (1838-1905) company. After taking on minor roles in a few productions, Sickert switched to studying art.

After a short attendance at the Slade School of Art in 1882, Sickert left to become a pupil and assistant of James Whistler. Many of Sickert’s early works were influenced by Whistler, particularly the art of painting alla prima (literally “at first attempt“), which meant layering wet paint upon wet paint rather than waiting for individual layers to dry. The technique allowed Sickert to paint from nature and capture images quickly.

Sickert’s painting technique changed after he travelled to France in 1883 and became the mentee of Edgar Degas, who encouraged him to plan his paintings with preliminary drawings. Sickert began using a grid system and leaving layers to dry between coats.

Under Degas’ guidance, Sickert’s paid attention to individual components of a painting, resulting in precise details rather than the blurred outlines of his earlier work. Sickert preferred sombre colours, although Degas tried to persuade him to introduce brighter tones. Sickert’s previous training focused on Impressionism, a style often painted en plein air, but Degas persuaded Sickert to work with drawings and memory in a studio to focus more on the artwork’s details. Sickert took this advice on board, and many of his future works were created in a studio, sometimes using photographs as a reference.

In 1888, Sickert joined the New English Art Club (NEAC), an alternative organisation to the Royal Academy, influenced primarily by French artists. Founded in 1885, the NEAC held annual exhibitions at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, London. Whilst the Royal Academy preferred traditional painting methods, the NEAC embraced Impressionism and other figurative styles. Ironically, the NEAC continues to exhibit similar artworks at the Mall Galleries, whereas the RA has embraced abstract and conceptual art. Some of the artists belonging to the NEAC included John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), Thomas Benjamin Kennington (1856-1916), William Orpen (1878-1931), and Neville Bulwer-Lytton (1879-1951).

Inspired by his previous career ambitions, Sickert’s first major works after joining the NEAC focused on the stage, including theatres, music halls, café concerts and the advent of cinema. One example, which Tate Britain used for the exhibition’s promotional material, is Little Dot Hetherington at the Bedford Music Hall (1888-9). Sickert frequently depicted the Old Bedford on Camden High Street in his paintings. In this scene, Sickert captured Hetherington singing The Boy I Love is Up in the Gallery, a music hall song written in 1885 by George Ware (1829-95).

Sickert also painted other examples of entertainment, including the circus. The Trapeze (1920) depicts an acrobat from the Cirque Rancy preparing to start her performance. Established by Théodore Rancy (1818-92) in the 19th century, the Cirque Rancy was a group of travelling circus acts across France. Still existing today is the Cirque Jules-Verne of Amiens, established in 1889 under the presidency of French writer Jules Verne (1828-1905). Sickert probably experienced the delights of the circus while living in Dieppe.

Other examples of entertainment in Sickert’s artwork include British Pierrots at Brighton, providing tourists with wartime relief, and orchestras performing from the pits of theatres. In the early 20th century, some music halls became early forms of cinemas, such as Middlesex Music Hall on Drury Lane, London. Using projectors and large white sheets or screens, the Old Mogul, as the hall was nicknamed, occasionally played films during their evening schedule. Sickert’s painting Gallery of the Old Mogul (1906) depicts men clambering to see the screen from the gallery. Only a tiny portion of the film is visible in the painting, but art historians believe it was one of the first Westerns ever shown. It could potentially be The Great Train Robbery (1903), which is generally considered the first of the genre.

During the 1880s, Sickert spent a lot of time in the French commune Dieppe on the coast of the English Channel. It is suspected that Sickert kept a mistress in Dieppe and potentially an illegitimate son. Artists at the time were known for having numerous mistresses, but Sickert also had three wives. He married his first wife, Ellen Cobden, in 1885 but divorced her after four years. He married his second wife, Christine Angus, in 1911 and remained with her until she died in 1920. In 1926, Sickert married the artist Thérèse Lessore (1884-1945), with whom he was still married at his death in 1942.

While in Dieppe in the 1880s, Sickert produced landscapes of the streets and buildings, including the church of St Jacques. Inspired by Claude Monet, Sickert painted the same scenes at different times of the day, exploring the effects of daylight on the architecture. In 1902, the owner of L’Hôtel de la Plage commissioned a series of paintings, which included a scene depicting bathers on the nearby beach. For reasons unknown, Bathers, Dieppe was never installed at the hotel. Instead, Sickert exhibited it at the Salon des Indépendants in 1903.

Between 1894 and 1904, Sickert visited Venice several times. During these trips, he focused on painting the city’s topography. He was particularly fascinated with St Mark’s Basilica, which like the church in Dieppe, he painted several times. Due to inclement weather during his last trip, Sickert began painting indoor scenes featuring groups of people. He continued exploring this theme on his return to Britain, using friends, professional models and possibly prostitutes to create tableaux from which to paint.

In the early 20th century, Sickert started painting nudes. Rather than depicting the idealised female body, he painted working-class women in dimly-lit rooms with crumpled bed sheets. Instead of glamorising nudity, Sickert’s artwork suggested poverty. When he first exhibited these paintings in Paris in 1905, they were well-received, but at the British exhibition in 1911, critics objected to the subject matter.

In 1907, Sickert became fascinated with the Camden Town Murder Case. In September of that year, the part-time prostitute Emily Dimmock was murdered in her bed by a client or lover. After having sex, the man slit Dimmock’s throat while she slept. Her body was discovered by her partner and the murder quickly became a press sensation. Causing controversy, Sickert renamed four of his previous nude paintings The Camden Town Murder. Each artwork featured a naked woman and a fully-clothed man, and although there were no signs of violence, the new titles gave the scenes a new interpretation. One painting shows a woman asleep on a bed while a man bows his head in thought. Originally called What Shall We Do for the Rent, the audience perceives the man as worried about money troubles; yet under the title The Camden Town Murder, the man may be psychologically preparing himself for the horrible act.

Shortly before the First World War, Sickert founded the Camden Town Group of British painters, named after the area of London he resided in at the time. Members met regularly at Sickert’s studio and mostly consisted of Post-Impressionist artists, including Lucien Pissarro (1863-1944), Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957), Spencer Frederick Gore (1878-1914), and Ethel Sands (1873-1962). The artists were influenced by the work of Vincent van Gogh (1853-90) and Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), who worked in heavy impasto. Sickert’s paintings of nudes are evidence of this style of art.

From 1908 to 1912 and 1915 to 1918, Sickert taught at the Westminster School of Art. The school was originally based in the Deans Yard, but by the time Sickert joined the staff, it had merged with Angela Burdett-Coutts‘s (1814-1906) Westminster Technical Institute in Vincent Square. Between Sickert’s two spells at the school, he established the Rowlandson House in London and another in Manchester. Unfortunately, they closed due to the outbreak of the First World War.

Following the death of his second wife, Sickert spent some time in Dieppe, concentrating once again on buildings and groups of people, particularly in cafes. After returning to England, Sickert became an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1924 and married Thérèse Lessore in 1926. Shortly after his marriage, Sickert became unwell, potentially suffering a minor stroke. The illness marked a change in Sickert’s artwork, and he also decided to go by his middle name Richard rather than Walter.

Sickert stopped drawing from life and began painting photographs taken by his wife or those found in newspapers, such as King Edward VIII (1894-1972) arriving at a church service in 1936. Most cameras only captured images in black and white, so the colours in Sickert’s paintings are based on memory or imagination. He used the tonal contrasts in the photograph to determine colour hues and shadow.

Although Sickert only worked from photographs, he continued to receive commissions, such as from Winston Churchill (1874-1965) and his wife Clementine (1885-1977). Sickert met Clementine in Dieppe when she was only 14, where she was struck by Sickert’s handsomeness. Before she could act on her attraction to Sickert, Clementine’s family returned to England, but she remained in touch with Sickert and his family. After introducing Churchill to Sickert, Clementine’s husband commissioned an informal portrait and asked Sickert for advice about painting.

Sickert’s passion for the theatre never left him. Using photographs from newspaper reviews or promotional materials, Sickert painted several actors and scenes from shows. In 1932, Sickert depicted the British actress Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies (1891-1992) as Isabella of France in the play Edward II by Christopher Marlowe (1564-93). Sickert included the photograph’s caption La Louvre, meaning “the she-wolf”, which describes the fierce character of King Edward II’s wife.

Other theatre scenes Sickert painted included Edith Evans (1888-1976) as Katherine and Leslie Banks (1890-1952) as Petruchio in William Shakespeare‘s (1564-1616) The Taming of the Shrew. The play opened in London in 1937 at the New Theatre, which is now called the Noël Coward Theatre. Sickert based his painting on a press photograph. He also painted stills from films, such as High Steppers, based on the story of the Tiller Girls dance troupe.

In 1932, Sickert painted Miss Earhart’s Arrival, which shows Amelia Earhart arriving during a thunderstorm near London after flying solo across the Atlantic. Earhart completed her challenge when she landed in Northern Ireland in May 1932, but only a couple of people witnessed it. Sickert’s painting of the press photograph shows crowds of people welcoming the American woman to England the following day. Sickert cropped the image to focus on the people and weather rather than the plane in the background.

During the final decade of Sickert’s life, he relied heavily on assistants, particularly his wife, to help complete his paintings. These paintings included portraits of close friends, such as Lord Beaverbrook (1879-1964) and the novelist Hugh Walpole (1884-1941). Sickert also painted landscapes of Bath, where he and his wife moved at the end of the 1930s. On 22nd January 1942, Sickert passed away at the age of 81 and was buried at the Church of St Nicholas in Bathampton.

Sickert’s art style changed throughout his career. Firstly, he imitated Whistler and Degas before adopting an impasto technique. His final works were smoother but still fell under the Post-Impressionism umbrella. Several people criticised Sickert for using photographs and suggested it showed his decline as an artist. In hindsight, these were some of Sickert’s most forward-looking paintings, which went on to inspire many artists and the Pop Art movement.

Due to Sickert’s fascination with the Camden Town Murder, some people have speculated his connection to Jack the Ripper, who murdered at least five women in London in 1888. Despite evidence suggesting Sickert was in France at the time, several authors named Sickert as a potential culprit. Although Sickert was not in the country, he did find the murders intriguing and painted Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom in 1905. Sickert based the painting on a room he lodged in after the landlady told him her suspicions of a man that stayed there a few years earlier.

In 2002, crime writer Patricia Cornwell (b.1956) adamantly claimed Sickert was Jack the Ripper in her book Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper—Case Closed. Years earlier, Stephen Knight (1951-85) suggested Sickert was an accomplice in Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution (1976), although his sources of research were later discovered to be a hoax. All the information collected by Knight and Cornwell has since been scrutinised, and the consensus is any claim that Sickert was Jack the Ripper is fantasy.

The Walter Sickert exhibition is the first major retrospective of Sickert at Tate Britain in over 60 years. It explores Sickert’s approach to art and his changing styles and subject matter. Although it features The Camden Town Murders series, Tate does not allude to the rumours about Jack the Ripper. The exhibition is a celebration of Sickert’s work and the impact he had on future artists. It also honours the 80th anniversary of the artist’s death.

The Walter Sickert exhibition is open until 18th September 2022. Tickets cost £18 and must be purchased in advance.


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