This painting is one of a small series of large experimental portraits that Blanche painted in 1890 of figures out of doors, an unusual setting for the painter who preferred his models to pose for him in his studio in Auteuil. The portrait of his mother in profile against peony bushes (Rouen Museum, Rouen) is the most accomplished of these, but the discovery of Lucie in a garden, also dated 1890, which recently appeared on the Paris art market, is another example in which Blanche renders the face in great detail but treats the background with freer impasto brush strokes in bold colours. Blanche had spent several years in Henri Gervex’s studio where he had developed his expertise in portraiture, and by 1890 he was making a good living with commissions, as well as painting many of his milieu. However, the composition of this painting is exceptional for Blanche: the bold trellis behind the model, the black tree trunk on the left, the black parasol and the « cut-off » arm on the right are all atypical of the artist.
The attribution of the sitter is unconfirmed, but since its appearance at Roland Browse and Delbanco in 1962 it has been described as a portrait of Ellen Millicent Cobden, the first wife of the painter Walter Sickert. Blanche and Sickert knew each other well and painted portraits of each other and their circle in Dieppe from the mid 1880s. Ellen sat for portraits by both Edgar Degas (fig.1) and James McNeill Whistler (fig.2). A portrait of Mrs Walter Sickert was one of two pictures that Blanche exhibited at the New English Arts Club in 1894. It received favourable reviews, being seen by one critic as ‘the tour de force of a skilled craftsman’ and described as 'an open-air picture of Mrs WS' and a 'grey portrait' which, although tantalizingly vague, do fit the description of the present picture.
We are grateful to Jane Roberts and Professor Kenneth McConkey for their assistance in preparing this catalogue entry. This painting will be sold with a certificate of authenticity by Jane Roberts dated 17 October 2018 and will be included in her forthcoming catalogue raisonné on the artist under no.1437.