Dorothea Sharp, 1874-1955

It is fairly easy to describe the work of Dorothea Sharp as joyful, charming, colourful, energetic - or even, as Harold Sawkins, editor of The Artist magazine, claimed, in 1935, ‘one of England’s greatest living woman painters’.

‘No other woman artist gives us such joyful paintings as she. Full of sunshine and luscious colour, her work is always lively harmonious and tremendously exhilarating … her subjects appeal because they are based on the joy of life … the chief attractions of Miss Sharp’s delightful pictures are her happy choice of subjects, and her beautiful colour schemes’[1].

This much-quoted description of Sharp’s work is not one to quarrel with; the only question is why Sharp stands out as a woman artist, rather than an English or British, artist - or even, simply, as an artist?

There is a critical tendency - long established - which cultivates the notion of an artist struggling with demons, self-sacrificing for his art and suggesting, in contrast, that any artistic output which is manifestly happy, decorative, colourful is, perforce, not quite top-rank. This smacks of the late 18th century, academic, principle that colour is essentially, sensational and, therefore, feminine whilst line - the controlling force - is essentially masculine. It smacks of mid-19th century debate in Britain about the relative worth of domestic genre subjects in comparison to the heroic, history paintings which lined the walls of the Royal Academy. It is paralleled in late 19th century criticism of French Impressionism, when the women artists, such as Berthe Morisot (with whom Sharp is sometimes convincingly compared), were dismissed with faint praise for their, ‘charming pictures, so refined and above all so feminine’[2]. Indeed, one can even find some critics dismissing as ‘feminine’ the whole output of the Impressionists precisely because of the gracefulness and delicacy of their work, their preoccupation with superficial appearances. For example, in 1896, the critic, Claude Roger-Marx, felt able to claim that, ‘the term Impressionist itself announces a manner of observation and notation which is well suited to the hypersensitivity and nervousness of women’[3].

We close this brief sortie into the realms of aesthetics by reminding ourselves that, in the 20th century, it was no less an artist than Matisse who claimed that, ‘what I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject-matter … a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair ..’. That Matisse was a man lent this claim some clout.

Now, if we keep this assertion in mind when looking at the work of Dorothea Sharp, we can legitimately affirm that this art, which celebrates sensory experiences - the joy of family, the charm of children, the pleasure of sunshine and breeze, the delight of a bounteous bouquet of flowers - is produced by an exceptional painter, for whom the exploration of the same range of subject matter (like Renoir’s Bathers or Cezanne’s Mont Ste. Victoire) was an artistic journey rather than a feminine necessity.

Sharp was born in Dartford, Kent, and began her artistic studies at a school in Richmond, run by C.E. Johnson, a respected landscape artist. She then moved on to the Regent Street Polytechnic. This was, perhaps, a curious choice: the institution had first been opened in 1838, to inculcate a practical knowledge of the ‘various arts’ and sciences, with exhibitions and evening classes. In 1881, the buildings were bought by philanthropist, Quintin Hogg[4] - a keen sportsman, businessman, intensely religious and also a fine portraitist - to accommodate a, ‘Young Man’s Christian Institute’, ‘for the promotion of industrial skill, general knowledge, health and well-being’. Only in 1885 was the Polytechnic expanded to welcome girls and young women. The history of Sharp’s education might suggest that, initially, she was being taught an appropriately polite accompaniment to a middle-class lady’s life. She then, perhaps, discovered in herself a greater determination to work as an artist and the Polytechnic offered the chance to acquire a practical, employable, skill. And, it turned out that the institute was, indeed, very rewarding.

Firstly, in 1841, the Polytechnic had accommodated - on its roof - the earliest photographic studio in Europe. One cannot but think that Sharp’s ability, as a mature painter, to capture a fleeting moment of time - when figures are just walking out of the picture, or approaching the viewer, or turning their backs - reveals how much she had learned from photography[5]; perhaps at the Polytechnic?

Secondly, it was at the Polytechnic that Sharp was introduced to Scottish artist, David Murray - whose vigorous, high-toned, landscape paintings offer a breath of fresh air - and George Clausen. The latter was of particular importance. In the 1880s and ‘90s, his output was dominated by images of children, often young girls, often depicted in a luminous, outdoor atmosphere, with broad, vigorous brushstrokes revealing his debt to Jules Bastien-Lepage. One of the key differences between Clausen and Bastien-Lepage[6], however, is that the former usually cannot help celebrating the glories of peachy skin beneath silver, English light and surrounded by Spring blossom and fresh, green, grass, whilst the latter quite often offers the doleful social realism of poverty, weariness and hard labour. It is clear that Dorothea Sharp learned a good deal from Clausen. Indeed, it may well have been Clausen she had to thank for encouraging her to go to Paris, where he himself had studied to become an artist in the 1870s.

It is regularly repeated that, once in Paris, Sharp studied under ‘Castaluchio’, ‘from whom .. she learnt all she knows’. Perhaps this was one and the same as the ‘Castaluchi’ from whom the Canadian artist, Mary Riter Hamilton, took private lessons in painting, when she was studying in Paris (probably a little later than Sharp)? We do not know. What is clear is that the work of the Impressionists and Post Impressionists - with their emphasis on capturing the fleeting effects of light and times of day, their fascination with movement and pleasure, their interest in photography and Japanese prints, their extraordinary command of colour, applied with bold, swift strokes - made an indelible impact on Dorothea Sharp.

In 1901, Sharp first exhibited at the Royal Academy and thus she continued, almost without a break, for nearly fifty years. The majority of the exhibited pictures are of children - paddling, rock-pooling, playing with lambs or ducks, walking on the Downs. It is clear that the initial sketches, and probably some of the larger pictures, were painted en plein air and it is no accident that water so often plays a significant role; the reflections of a luminous atmosphere and glinting light are all thus heightened and scattered across the picture, uniting the whole composition in a glittering veil of colour.

Many of these pictures were submitted to the RA from London, but they reveal Dorothea Sharp’s travels further afield. She visited Brittany, the South of France, Portugal, Spain and Italy, in the 1920s and ‘30s. The impact of these sun-drenched places can probably be seen in the heightened colour of her paintings from that period. But it was the light and life of St. Ives which was still more important to her.

Sharp first visited St. Ives in 1920, where she took one of the artist’s studios, to which she regularly returned in later years. She became an honorary member of the St. Ives Society of Artists (STISA) in 1928. It was also in St. Ives that she met fellow artist Marcella Smith, who became a lifelong friend. Smith was born in Surrey, but had moved with her family to America, where she then undertook her first studies. But - as for so many American art students - the lure of Paris at the close of the 19th century drew her to the Académie Colarossi, which (like the Académie Julian) was regarded as much less conservative than the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Smith had been attracted to St. Ives as early as 1914 and her first picture at the RA, St. Ives Harbour, shown in 1916, must have helped to encourage the development of the artists’ colony, which was very well-established by the 1920s. Smith’s paintings of the boats, harbours, cottages and people of St. Ives are lively, but without Sharp’s bravura. In the 1930s, she began to work on a series of flower paintings in oil - and it may have been her example which encouraged Sharp to embark on her own numerous and glorious pictures of flowers, where the colour is sumptuous and the blooms pulse with light and life.

In fact, Sharp's late flower pieces must be regarded as the culmination of her painterly achievements. She was, perhaps, less able to clamber over rocks or walk on the beach. But a parade of flowers in vases, often set within the embrasure of a window, fills Sharp's later years. In these works, she commands a rich palette of colour and tone, plays with light, silhouette and glancing reflections, and manipulates space in a display of breath-taking brilliance.

During the Second War, Sharp and Smith settled in St. Ives, but they returned to London in the mid-1940s. By this time, Sharp had built up a considerable reputation. As early as 1903, she had become an Associate of the Society of Women Artists (founded in 1855), and a full member five years later. In 1906, she first exhibited with the Royal Society of British Artists, of which she was elected a member. She was elected to the Royal Institute of Oil Painters in 1923 and her first - highly successful - solo show was held in the Connell Gallery, London, in 1933. By the time of her death, in 1955, Sharp’s work was held in many public and private collections.

Without a doubt, Dorothea Sharp’s work is full of delight and charm. But it is also commanding, controlled, and at once subtle and vigorous. Sharp’s paintings are important not just because they depict pretty children and charming flowers. She beguiles with these images of light and life. But she is also demanding. The touch of her brush is assertive and insistent, her colour is bold and she thrusts her figures and flowers to the foreground of the picture plane. Sharp’s paintings are not quiet. They require the viewer’s close attention. They are magnificent.

© Dr. Hilary Taylor, 2013

[1]The Artist, April, 1935.

[2] George Rivière, in 1877, commenting on Morisot’s Laundresses Hanging Out the Wash and Young Woman in aBall Gown.

[3]Revue encyclopédique, quoted by Tamar Garb, in her interesting article, ‘Berthe Morisot and the Feminizing of Impressionism’, Critical Readings in Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, 1990.

[4] Grandfather of Quintin Hogg, Lord Hailsham, Conservative politician.

[5] Of course, photography had been a powerful influence on painting - especially with regard to composition - since the mid-19th century. But Sharp’s pictures - which might well be called ‘snap-shots’ - almost suggest that she had a practical skill as a photographer. Did she use any photos as aides-mémoires for her paintings?

[6] Clausen wrote about Bastien-Lepage, in admiring terms, in 1888 and 1892.