The Studio is among Sickert’s most accomplished and audacious figure paintings. Its composition - at first sight straightforward - is in fact of striking sophistication. The entire scene is a mirror image containing within itself a second mirror image. Deconstruction reveals that the surface of the painting is a disguised looking glass which the painter is facing; the painter himself, identified by the brazen diagonal of his arm cutting across the canvas, is largely outside the picture; he is standing with his back to the model whom he is painting as he sees her reflected in the large looking glass; she in turn has her back to an arched mirror (the door of a wardrobe or perhaps a cheval glass) and is thus revealed to the painter and to the spectator in two aspects. The Studio may be read as a single figure (the nude), a two-figure (the nude and the painter), or a three-figure subject (the painter, and the nude seen from the front and from the back).
The richness and variety of handling demonstrated in The Studio is likewise remarkable. Sickert has marshalled an armoury of brushmarks: linear, hatched strokes, broken dabs of impasto, dry scrapes along the contours. He has contrasted crusty areas of paint with fat, smooth passages. The compromise between thin and thick paint, summary and laboured definition, broadly swept untidy brushwork and a delicately precise touch, shows masterly control throughout.
The confident maturity of this painting has led to its misdating. It seemed self-evident that it must be a product of the climax, not the beginning, of the Camden Town period. Browse dated it c.1917. The present writer revised this dating to c.1911-12, while noting that there was an outside chance it was painted as early as 1906. Having studied the painting repeatedly in the intervening years, I now judge that 1906 is the correct date. If so, there is a strong probability it is Le grand miroir, shown at Bernheim Jeune in Paris in January 1907 and again (this time with dimensions - which match The Studio - quoted) in the auction sale organised by Bernheim in 1909.
The low tonality of The Studio accords with the 1906 date. More telling are certain circumstantial details of its setting. It is clearly contemporary with The Mantelpiece (Southampton Art Gallery). Both are painted on English-size, 30 x 20 inch, canvases. Both represent the same interior featuring the arched mirror (wardrobe door or cheval glass) with a jacket hanging from its wooden surround. The main subject, a standing nude and her reflection in a full-length looking-glass, was one that preoccupied Sickert in other paintings and drawings of 1906, some done in his Fitzroy Street, London studio and some in the Hôtel du Quai Voltaire, Paris where he spent the autumn of that year. The Studio (like The Mantelpiece) is a London subject. If it is indeed Le grand miroir at Bernheim in 1907, it must have been painted before Sickert’s autumn visit to Paris. It anticipates the most fruitful period of Sickert’s career as a painter of intimate north London figure subjects.
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