Description & Technical information

William Nicholson’s (1872-1949) career straddled boundaries. Commencing against the backdrop of James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s (1834-1904) resolute campaign for self-sufficient ‘art for art’s sake’ by the time of his death, in 1949, the Whistlerian approach - one of treatment over content - was common. Moreover, as typified by the work of the artists’ son, Ben Nicholson (1894-1982), abstraction was now the word.
 
Running parallel to these developments and somewhat above them Nicholson’s career does not neatly fit in to any one category or movement, yet he was not only an artist of great originality but arguably the best of his generation. If anything, such detachment is testament to his supreme mastery of both painting and printmaking and his great facility in all forms of genre - whether it be still life, landscape, or portraiture. Certainly, the present work neatly encapsulates this independent brilliance and attests to his importance as one of the great artists working in a figurative style in the early twentieth-century.
 
Girl in the Yellow Jersey is a striking image, full of spirit and charm, that reflects much of the Baroque theatricality of the work of Frans Hals (1582-1666)[1]. Indeed, Nicholson greatly admired the work of the Dutch Master and would have seen his seminal masterpiece The Laughing Cavalier in the Wallace Collection, which had been bequeathed to the nation and put on display at Hertford House in 1900. Compositionally the sitters angled pose, hands-on-hips, direct gaze, and wry smile all transmit a great sense of bravado redolent of Hals’ iconic work. Furthermore, the lively handling of the flesh tones of the girl’s face are also reminiscent of Hals.
Nicholson however is not slavish in his appropriation and eloquently combines these quotations with his own virtuosity. His skill as a colourist is displayed in the bold yet considered contrast of the yellow ribbed jersey and mauve feather. Whilst the wonderfully deft description of the velvet-like ostrich plumes on the hat reflect his consummate mastery of still-life and his unique ability to convey the tactile quality of things. 
 
The coquettish, self-assured appearance of the sitter belies her age and there is a playful ambiguity in this carefully constructed picture between the notion of a girl - in the yellow jersey, and a lady - in the elegant ostrich feather hat. The curved brim of the elegant hat echoing the young girl’s pose; making mimicry of it. This light-hearted theatricality confirms the fact that – like so many other paintings Nicholson executed of those in his immediate circle – this is not a portrait commission but a genre picture, executed for Nicholson’s own pleasure and also for the delight of a general public rather than any one individual or family.
 
Nicholson had a great gift for depicting children and he enjoyed portraying both them and friends casually in fancy dress – much in the vein of Renaissance household portraits or Baroque Tete d’expressions - rather than formal commissions.[2] As well as Hals, he was also a great admirer of Diego Velasquez (1599-1660), producing a painting of Genevieve Carpentier in the pose of the Infanta Marguerita in the same year as the present picture (Private collection). His originality and informality were greatly admired and, as a leading society portraitist, he depicted many figures from the world of theatre and literature; which complimented his interest in role-play. In the present painting, the mismatch fancy-dress and humorous contrast of formal and informal elements imbue the work with great originality and panache.
 
Indeed, the panache and charisma so eloquently captured by Nicholson has been confirmed by the recent discovery of the sitter. Felicity Tree (1894-1978) would have been aged 17 at the time of execution and it is known she sat for at least one other painting to Nicholson titled ‘Felicity’ which was shown at the Goupil the year before the present work in 1912. Felicity was the youngest of a trio of theatrical society sisters and the daughter of the well-known theatre producer Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree - half-brother of Sir Max Beerbohm the caricaturist.
In her youth Felicity spent Summer’s at Rottingdean in a house that her parents rented next door to the Nicholson’s. A keen sailor, golfer, and swimmer, it was during this time that she built up a great friendship with the artist’s son, Ben Nicholson, who was of a similar age. A photograph, taken by Ben at Rottingdean of Felicity in 1911 shows her in the same Yellow Jersey and it is quite possible that it was around this time that the notion for the present portrait began to develop, probably painted in 1912, before being shown the following year at Goupil.
 
 

[1] See P Reed et al, William Nicholson, 2011.
[2] Ibid

 
 

Date:  1913
Period:  20th century
Origin:  UK
Medium: Oil on canvas
Signature: Signed and dated ‘William Nicholson 1913’ lower left.
Dimensions: 76 x 63.5 cm (29⁷/₈ x 25⁰/₁ inches)
Provenance: In the collection of Dr Arnold Ernest Jones by 1927
By descent until 1976;
Private Collection, Scotland to 2017
Literature: L. Browse, William Nicholson, Hart-Davis, London, 1956
S Scwartz, William Nicholson, Yale University Press, 2004.
C. Campbell, and M. James, William Nicholson (1872-1904): British Painter and Printmaker, Exh. Cat, Royal Academy, Lonon, 2005.
P. Reed, W. Baron, and M. James, William Nicholson: Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil Paintings, Modern Art Press; Yale, London, 2011.
Exhibitions: London, Goupil Gallery Salon, 1913, no, 233
Liverpool, 1927, no. 236
Categories: Paintings, Drawings & Prints