As I wrote yesterday, crime novelist Patricia Cornwell believes that the true identity of “Jack the Ripper,” the unidentified serial killer who disemboweled five prostitutes in London’s East End in 1888, was Walter Sickert, who later became one of Britain’s most famous painters.
Some time ago I found myself in West Los Angeles in the company of Scott Schaefer, the Senior Curator of Paintings for the Getty Center, gazing at one of the West Coast’s only Walter Sickert paintings on public display. “Public display” is a bit of a stretch, because it actually hangs in Schaefer’s assistant’s office, and not in the galleries.
“It really doesn’t fit in our collection at all,” said Schaefer, “because it’s a twentieth-century painting by a British painter, and (J. Paul) Getty didn’t generally collect these works.”
The “it” he spoke of is one of Sickert’s minor works called A French Kitchen. It’s an oil-on-canvas impressionistic painting of a woman cooking, and is about the size of a sheet of legal paper. Sickert painted it in Dieppe, France around 1920, and J. Paul Getty acquired it in London in 1938. Getty may have purchased it directly from Sickert, who lived until 1942.
There was nothing in the work that indicated genius to my untrained eye, but the unexplained splotches of red on the woman’s dress (stab wounds?) and on the table (blood splatter?) made me think of the monster that possibly resided in Sickert. Of course, I probably never would have noticed these splotches had I not known of Cornwell’s theory. It might simply have been an example of seeing what my mind wanted me to see.
But, perhaps not.
One of the reasons Sickert first came to Cornwell’s attention as a suspect was because of the many canvases he filled with violent subjects.
Sickert was no Norman Rockwell. His works often explore the themes of loneliness, degradation, hopelessness, and violence that was part of daily life for much of Victorian London’s wretched poor.
Sickert painted several works based on a famous prostitute murder in 1907, which Cornwell believes Sickert committed. More chilling still is a work entitled Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom, which Sickert painted in 1908, that now hangs in the Manchester City Art Gallery in England.
A French Kitchen has been appraised at between £10-15,000, which translates roughly to $21-31,000.
I can only imagine what the work will be valued at in certain dark circles if it’s ever conclusively proven that it was painted by the most famous serial killer in history.