A dialogue in art between two cities

In the late 19th century, the exchange of artistic ideas between Paris and London bore exceptional fruit.

At the end of the Victorian age, London was the very definition of the metropolis, teeming with commercial momentum and the fervor of lives caught up in the wheels of progress.

Across the English Channel, Paris was only half the size of the British capital, a jewel of aesthetic refinements that the Victorian British often regarded with a mixture of disapproval and awe.

History shows that the relationship between the two capitals has always been complex. But between 1870 and 1910, the exchange of artistic ideas between the two societies bore exceptional fruit, especially for the development of Walter Sickert, whose oeuvre reveals the vast extent of the influence of his chosen mentor, the French master Edgar Degas.

A multifaceted exhibition at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., traces the pattern of mutual influence between Paris and London for artists of this era. "Degas, Sickert, and Toulouse-Lautrec: London and Paris 1870-1910" displays almost 100 works by these three major artists, plus many others. Paintings by James McNeill Whistler, Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard, Philip Wilson Steer, James Tissot, and others reveal the complex web of cross-cultural artistic dialogue that characterized this age when national boundaries began to melt in the pursuit of new art.

Perhaps the single most profound result of this dialogue was the soulful art of the British painter Walter Richard Sickert (1860-1942). Not particularly well known outside Britain, Sickert's paintings of London scenes reveal "deep analysis of symbolism and the surface appearance of the world," according to critic David Peters Corbett.

Sickert once said: "The most fruitful course of study lies in the persistent effort to render the magic and poetry of London." He was, however, innately cosmopolitan in his approach to life, and thus open to aesthetic currents emanating from France. Born in Munich, the son of a Danish painter, he and his family moved to England when he was 8.

In 1883, when he was an apprentice to James Whistler, he was sent on an errand to Paris with a letter of introduction to Edgar Degas. Degas was gaining notice in France as an innovative Impressionist with a realist tendency. His pictures of modern Parisian life were arresting in composition and new in perspective.

Sickert arrived in Paris at a time when he was ready for a new view of art beyond the approach of Whistler, whose goal was always aesthetic harmony. Pictured here, and included in this exhibition, is "Harmony in Grey and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander, 1872-74" by Whistler. It is a prime example of the polished surface and formal pose favored by the society painter.

Ready to move beyond Whistler's concern with the surface, Sickert made the most of his meeting with Degas. It turned out to be the beginning of a 30-year friendship and one of the most fruitful mentorships in art.

Sickert realized that Degas was becoming the artist of modern complexity. The Frenchman was attempting to capture the fragmentary nature of urban existence as expressed in the Parisian leisure activities of the theater and ballet - new subjects in art. Unusual vantage points, naturalistic poses that attempted to capture movement, and cropped figures - such as in "The Dance Class, 1873," included in this show - were all aspects of Degas's innovative style that appealed to Sickert.

In 1887, Sickert began to paint scenes of music halls and theaters in London that were inspired by Degas's paintings of the artificially lighted world of the stage. Imitating Degas's working method, Sickert would sit in music halls night after night, making sketches that he would later develop in his studio where his imagination could be given free rein on the canvas. He was moving beyond capturing the impression in front of his eyes into the realm of symbolist painting.

The music-hall paintings, such as the one reproduced here ("Little Dot Hetherington," circa 1889), strive to reveal the inner meaning of social experience in the modern city. This picture is painted on a fan and shows the child actress Dot Hetherington on stage from the audience's perspective - a vantage point favored by Degas. The bright lights and forced cheerfulness of the music hall do not disguise the exploitation of innocence that is the picture's theme.

Later in his career, Sickert expanded this theme in his deeply felt portraits of women in urban poverty in the Camden Town district of London - pictures that reveal the beauty which exists in humanity even in the most trying circumstances. These paintings assured his place among British painters.

But the importance of the cross- Channel influence was never forgotten by Sickert. In 1901, Sickert wrote a letter to an English friend in which he admitted as much: "Stick to the French school. Il n'y a que cela [There is only that] in modern art. We are good only in as much as we derive from them."

'Degas, Sickert and Toulouse-Lautrec: London and Paris 1870-1910' is at the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., until May 14.

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