Saturday, 31 July 2010

Walter Sickert
Ennui, 1914
Oil on Canvas 152 x 112cm
Tate Britain, London
15 February 2008

The exhibition was of work by the Camden Town Group of painters, who “inspired by the work of van Gogh and Gauguin on the continent, introduced Post-Impressionism to Britain”. This may be the case but in my opinion the biggest influence on Sickert is Degas, using many of his themes such as the music hall and the domestic environment to justify a model’s nudity.

It is interesting that he made full use of titles to add drama to the paintings suggesting a narrative for the work that certainly engaged with life. Ennui is a good example of both his use of titles and domestic interiors as a setting for psychological tension. I have seen this painting several times now and still think it is one of his finest.

The canvas is one of his largest and is based on sketches of two models, Hubby and Marie, that he used for a number of his domestic interior scenes. The painting depicts the couple overlapped in a tight corner of a sitting room, their gazes are diametrically opposed. He looks out of the canvas to the right whereas she looks into the corner of the room on the left. Above her head a painting of a carefree woman ‘looks’ over a balcony into the room. They are both absorbed in themselves.

It can be no accident that there is a bell jar full of stuffed brightly coloured birds on the chest of drawers. The inference is that the woman is both bored and trapped and the title of the painting makes sure we don’t miss the point. It is a mood that has strong melancholic associations and one can imagine the despondent Marie as the protagonist in Alberto Moravia’s 1960’s novel La Noia who states in the prologue that “nothing that I did pleased me or seemed worth doing; furthermore, I was unable to imagine that anything could please me, or that could occupy me in a lasting manner”. This isn’t the melancholy beauty of the symbolists but a mourning of the loss of purpose (or perhaps freedom in this case) such that the melancholic person thus retreats into a state of inactivity, superbly shown by Marie staring into the corner with vacant mindlessness.

In front of her sits Hubby, leaning back in his chair smoking a cigar at a table with a glass of water, staring into what Virginia Woolf described as “the intolerable wastes of desolation in front of him” . His body language is of one set in his ways and the viewer perceives that the accumulated weariness is such that the situation isn’t going to change.

The tight interior space and the arbitrary crop of the fireplace and yellow chest of drawers give an almost claustrophobic atmosphere to the room and remind me of a photographic snapshot. The painting is built up of several layers of thinly scumbled opaque paint giving a very lively surface but I don’t think it contributed to the atmosphere of melancholia as it does in his earlier sequence of pictures with the collective title ‘The Camden Town Murder’ where the brushwork is much coarser and totally in keeping with the subject matter.

[1]Woolf, Virginia quoted in Walter Sickert: the Human Canvas 2004 Abbot Hall Gallery Kendal 62

©blackdog 2010


  1. a very precise-careful and very sensitive description and analysis of this painting which may tell a story and depicture some human attitudes and feelings we may understand well, indeed, though it is also a reflection of a zeitgeist feeling (1914 -before WWI), esp. in the 'Bürgertum' we know from literature, too- you mentioned Moravia and Virginia Woolf, I thought of Flaubert's Madam Bovary or Julien Green's Leviathan, but German expressionistic authors like Georg Heym expressed also that feel of 'ennui'.... The lack of communication is so significant- and the bell jar of stuffed birds is quite a symbol like other details you pointed out- yes, "we don't miss the point"! There is only one thing I'm a little surprised about -the black bear-fur (?)- cloth hanging over the chair- I also like how the eyes are led from the man/sir via the woman/lady to the painting in the painting- but then they are captivated in the narrow corner as you said! An impressive painting by a painter I hardly know (he died in Bath- if there paintings by him can be seen too- Victoria Gallery?).

  2. It is no "bearskin", it is only the - too dark- shadow (!) of the man- I saw another reproduction of this painting where you can see that!

  3. I've always thought there's a lot of suppressed rage in the woman in this picture. The line of her back is hard and straight, not bowed outwards as one would imagine if she had really been relaxed against the chest of drawers. The unthinkingly complacent pose of the man is in stark contrast. I've never seen this picture discussed in feminist terms, but I think it says a lot about the relationship between men and women, and I can't help but speculate that this was intentional.

  4. Thanks for the thoughtful comment Alec, it is a good point about her posture and I also feel he had a point to make.