Framed Dimensions:70.8 x 60.3 cm. (27 7/8 x 23 3/4 in.)
Provenance:Bernheim Jeune, Paris, acquired directly from the artist, 3 Jan. 1907;
The Rt. Hon. Frederick Leverton Harris;
Mrs Gertrude Harris, by descent;
At Sotheby's, London, 19 June 1974, lot 66a;
J. Moore Pollock;
Private Collection, UK, by descent
James Bolivar Manson, ‘Walter Richard Sickert A.R.A.’, Drawing and Design, vol. 3, no. 13 (July 1927), p. 5 (illus.) (listed as ‘Portrait’);
Wendy Baron, Sickert, Phaidon, 1973, cat. no. 228;
Wendy Baron, Sickert: Paintings and Drawings, Yale University Press, 2006, cat. no. 266.1, p. 320 (illus.);
Wendy Baron, Luke Farey and Richard Shone, Sickert: The Theatre of Life, exh. cat., Piano Nobile Publications, 2021, cat. no. 9, pp. 72-73 (col. illus.)
1907, Paris, Bernheim Jeune, Exposition Sickert, 10 – 19 Jan. 1907, cat. no. 30 (listed as ‘Le Canapé rayé’);
1911, London, Stafford Gallery, An Exhibition of Pictures by Walter Sickert, 27 June – July 1911, cat. no. 30 (listed as ‘The Striped Sofa’);
2021, London, Piano Nobile, Sickert: The Theatre of Life, 24 Sept. – 17 Dec. 2021, cat. no. 9
Further information:After his marriage to Ellen Cobden failed in 1895, Sickert spent a decade living in France. He settled in Dieppe and paid several extended visits to Venice. When he returned to London, remaining there from October 1905 until July 1906 (the time at which he painted this Portrait of Mrs Barrett), he continued to develop the intimiste subject of figures in an interior. A darkened room, brooding shadows, glittering low-key colour, and a narrow range of theatrical props are the definitive ingredients of Sickert's work from this period.
Portrait of Mrs Barrett was executed in studio 3 at No. 8 Fitzroy Street, which Sickert had acquired in February 1905. So much is apparent from certain pieces of furniture and interior design which occur in other paintings from this year: the green striped sofa; the heavy black frame with a gilt moulding; and, most importantly, the olive green wall against which Sickert arranged all of his sitters.
Throughout his life Sickert maintained a rigorous work ethic, working at his paintings between roughly 10 am and 4 pm on most days of the week. Throughout his Camden Town period, his habit was to use different sitters on alternating days. He found this sharpened his appreciation of each model, emphasising the respective qualities of each. At the time he made this painting, Mrs Barrett came to sit on alternating days with Sickert's one-time lover, Aggie Beerbohm, and a pair of Belgian sisters, Hélène and Jeanne Daurmont. (A painting of the Daurmonts, fig. 1, makes clear the same setting in Sickert's Fitzroy Street studio as those found in Portrait of Mrs Barrett.)
As with most of his anonymous Camden Town period sitters, it is unclear how Sickert came to meet Mrs Barrett. The art dealer and Sickert specialist Lillian Browse once described her as Sickert's charwoman. The story was plausible because Sickert frequently used low-paid, insecurely self-employed people from London's working classes (his other sitters variously included coster girls, milkmen, and so on). In 1963, Browse received a letter from Mrs Barrett's daughter-in-law who explained that Barrett was in fact a dressmaker by trade who died in the London Temperance Hospital in 1925. Further to this, Wendy Baron has suggested that Mrs Barrett may have been introduced to Sickert by another of his sitters in spring 1906, Aggie Beerbohm, who was a dress designer.
There is an open debate about how many portraits Sickert made of Mrs Barrett. Portrait of Mrs Barrett was painted along with another strict profile portrait of her in spring 1906; this second profile was purchased by Roger Fry in 1928 and is now in the Courtauld Gallery (fig. 2). There are also at least two frontal portraits of Mrs Barrett (one is privately owned, the other is owned by the Carrick Hill Trust, Adelaide). There are two pastels which have come to be identified as portraits of Mrs Barrett, owing to the model's similarity to other firmly identified portraits of her (one is in the Tate Collection, the other is in the National Gallery of Canada). However, despite the sitter's resemblance to Mrs Barrett, the National Gallery of Canada work was exhibited in Paris in autumn 1905 under the title Popolana Veneziana; it is unclear why Sickert would refer to Mrs Barrett as a 'Venetian commoner'. If Popolana Veneziana does indeed depict Mrs Barrett, she evidently sat for Sickert over a period of several months in 1905 and 1906.
Aside from these discussions, Portrait of Mrs Barrett is a forcefully made, vividly human artwork. It is freely painted in a rich impasto, evidently applied wet on wet. The dominant colour contrast of cherry red, found in her striped blouse, and olive green, the colour of the wall, lends a striking and imaginative formal structure to the picture. The hooded eye socket and immaculate rolls of black hair offer an ambiguous characterisation, pitched somewhere between glumness and glamour. The swaggering curlicue of the 'S' in Sickert's signature, inscribed at the lower left-hand corner, has the same dashing quality as the work's rich paintwork and its palpable human presence.