American Art

Whistler’s Portraits: Ripper, Vampire, or Sickert?

Walter Sickert; James McNeill Whistler, 1895; lithograph on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.108

Walter Sickert; James McNeill Whistler, 1895; lithograph on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.108

Beyond the famous portrait of his mother, James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) depicted dozens of people in his personal and public life. A search for “Whistler portrait” on Open F|S returns 299 hits, with subjects ranging from Annie, his niece, to art-world notables. We’ll examine a few fascinating figures who sat before Whistler’s canvas.

Was Whistler gazing at a serial killer when he sketched this portrait of Walter Sickert in 1895? Though the Jack the Ripper murders took place well over a century ago, a few authors recently claimed to have identified the culprit. They say that around when he was studying art with Whistler, Sickert (1860–1942) also was terrorizing London, committing the murders attributed to the legendary Ripper.

Scholars tend to dismiss these theories. We do know, though, that Whistler and Sickert had a turbulent relationship—which one author says left the latter unhinged. Sickert first met Whistler in 1882 and worked with him for several years, serving as the senior artist’s assistant. The two men each completed a portrait of five-year-old Stephen Manuel, Whistler’s distant relative, in 1885. Even then, contention seemed to exist between the artists. Sickert wrote to Whistler, a notorious perfectionist, that he needed to stop tinkering with the portrait; “The picture is finished,” Sickert admonished. Years later, he stated that “Whistler’s portrait was bad” compared to his usual work—and that Whistler had painted much too slowly for the child, “who was wearied with the number of sittings.”

Meanwhile, Whistler seems to have dismissed Sickert’s interpretation. After earning praise for his portrait at the Society of British Artists’ exhibition in November 1885, Whistler wrote to his sister-in-law (and Stephen’s aunt) that his version “certainly seems to be the favourite in all the papers—haven’t you seen?”

Left to right: Whistler's and Sickert's portraits of young Stephen Manuel.

Left to right: Whistler’s and Sickert’s portraits of young Stephen Manuel.

The “friendship” fully imploded in 1896, after Whistler found Sickert socializing with a man who was suing him. Sickert came by Whistler’s home to explain, leaving a calling card behind. Furious, the older artist scrawled the name of a famous traitor on the card and sent it back.

Sickert had already started moving away from Whistler stylistically, embracing the impressionist style of Edgar Degas, with whom he had studied in Paris. But while Degas delighted in ballerinas, Sickert was drawn to more sinister subjects. He often depicted prostitutes and was famously inspired by the murder of one, naming four of his female nudes after the Camden Town Murder of 1907. And he was fascinated by Jack the Ripper; he even completed a dark, shadowy oil of the killer’s bedroom.

But why do some writers allege that Sickert was Jack the Ripper? American crime writer Patricia Cornwell, who is perhaps best known for these claims, in part ties her reasoning to Whistler. The murders occurred in 1888, the same year that Whistler married Beatrice Godwin. Sickert “loathed” women, Cornwell asserts in her book Portrait of a Killer, as much as he “idolized, envied, and hated” Whistler. She adds: “For Walter Sickert to imagine Whistler in love and enjoying a sexual relationship with a woman might well have been the catalyst that made Sickert one of the most dangerous and confounding killers of all time.”

Then again, as Jonathan Jones of the Guardian points out, we could also make a compelling argument that Sickert was Dracula, “that other renowned Victorian monster.” Zoom into the lithograph, and look into Sickert’s eyes. Do you see a murderer, a vampire, or simply a British artist?

Joelle Seligson

Joelle Seligson

Joelle Seligson is digital editor at the Freer|Sackler.