Walter Richard Sickert (1860 – 1942)


100.5 X 151 CM
Accession number


Departing from his usual summer in Dieppe, Walter Sickert first visited Venice in May 1895 and over the next 16 months returned regularly. The resulting works mark the culmination of a period of personal crisis – although his wife travelled with him to Venice, the marriage was in break down and they were to separate in September 1896. He let the floating city’s iconic sites command his attention and preeminent among these was St Mark’s Cathedral, ‘the central building in the world’, as John Ruskin said, describing its stylistic evolution in The Stones of Venice (1851–53). By the 1890s the basilica was secure in the victory of Ruskin’s campaign against the city’s aggressive ‘restoration’ policy. Sickert sketched numerous versions of the west-facing façade – uncleaned and rather grey – and used these, plus photographs, as a basis for paintings, made in a studio at 940 Calle dei Frati and in London in 1896–98. (He returned to Venice to paint St Mark’s in 1900 and 1901).

 JM Whistler, to whom Sickert had been pupil and assistant in the 1880s, painted St Mark’s diminishing in the dusky square, in Nocturne: Blue and Gold, St Mark’s, Venice (1880). Although Sickert drew in the evening, which was cooler, he painted this full-frontal view of St Mark’s in the studio, and it is a triumph of facticity. He painted with a fine brush, delineating the basilica’s symmetrical spread. Flags hang flat in the windless air from three mast-like poles, barely interrupting the horizontal weight of the image, in counterpoint to the building’s three-tiered rise, from the lower register, thick with marble columns, to the glinting mosaics in the lunettes in upper registers, and the crosses above the domes. He produced multiple versions of the same subject, but unlike the series of paintings produced by the Impressionists, was not seeking to record the changing light. ‘The theory that it is the main business of an artist to produce half-a-dozen views of one object in different lights cannot be seriously maintained’, he wrote in 1923. ‘It would be nearer the truth to say that the artist existed to disentangle from nature the illumination that brings out most clearly the character of each scene.’ Although he hugely admired Claude Monet’s ‘large view of the Ducal Palace and the Piazzetta smouldering before their extinction in twilight’, Sickert was at pains to identify the character of such a recognisable building by treating it front-on and detaching it from any contextualising architecture, even letting the bustle of 19th-century life play out offstage – what Ruskin disdained ‘a continuous line of cafes, where the idle Venetians of the middle classes lounge, and read empty journals; in its centre the Austrian bands play during the time of vespers, their martial music jarring with the organ notes’. Subtler, Sickert presents St Mark’s through a modern lens: severed from the setting of the square, tiny figures in the foreground are noted by dabs of paint, like blurs caught on camera, and the cropping of the composition, which has the crosses lopped off at the top, suggests the casual framing of a photograph. The facade fills the entire canvas and exceeds it, with effect of emphasising the extraordinarily denseness of the structure, enduring in the sinking city.

The painting was given to the British Council Collection in 1950 by Dame Bridget Cicely D’Oyly Carte (1908–85). Of theatrical stock, she had inherited the management of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, which was founded by her grandfather, Richard D’Oyly Carte. Richard D’Oyly Carte had, with the support of his wife, Helen, renowned for her business and managerial acumen, made London a centre for light opera. Helen was friends with Whistler, and Sickert etched and painted portraits of her in 1884 and 1885–86.