Why is Miss Earhart’s Arrival by Walter Sickert so effective?

The Tate’s website has for its Work of the Week “Miss Earhart’s Arrival” by Walter Sickert to commemorate the eightieth anniversary of Amelia Earhart’s successful solo flight across the Atlantic.

Although I’m familiar with some of Sickert’s work, such as the Camden Town Murder, and particularly like the ones in the theatre/music hall, this one was new to me.

The Camden Town Murder

The Old Bedford

According to the Tate: “This painting, which Sickert based on a photograph taken from a newspaper, actually shows Earhart arriving in England (at Hanworth, very near today’s Heathrow airport) the following day. In the driving rain – not so different from the May we’ve had this year – she is just visible in profile, wearing her trademark close-fitting cap, in the right-hand side of the picture. The rest of the composition is taken up with the crowd of newsmen and spectators gathered to witness her arrival: gathering the day’s top news story. “

When I saw the painting on the website (I’m in London at the end of the month so may have the opportunity to seek out the real thing), I immediately found it striking. But I can’t for the life of me say why. Everything is wrong about the picture. It is meant to be about Amelia Earhart, but, despite trying to follow the Tate’s instructions I can’t find her with any confidence. Most of the picture is of people’s backs. The judges at the Photographic Club I attend occasionally are always going on about “eye contact”. Definitely no eye contact here! Pretty pictures are painted in sunshine not pouring rain.

Yet despite all this I think the painting is superb. Yes, the colour palette is narrow with excellent use of the blues and green, with the single contrasting red coat from the opposite side of the colour wheel. (I’m trying to remember the quote I read recently about colours being friends of the adjacent colours but lovers of the ones opposite.) Yes, the atmosphere of the occasion is well represented – you can feel you are stuck at the back of the crowd frantically trying to get that shot for your picture editor at your paper. I suspect the original black and white newspaper photograph would not have been as effective, but I can’t be certain.

I hope someone will explain the appeal of this painting to me. I know it’s great. Why?

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About notes to the milkman

I'm a printmaker based in the North West of England, living in Bolton and printing at Hot Bed Press in Salford. Please visit my website johnpindararts.weebly.com
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7 Responses to Why is Miss Earhart’s Arrival by Walter Sickert so effective?

  1. Is it the tension that will never be resolved? The sense of immanence? It’s beautifully composed, so that the crowd appears to be wriggling. And it appears to be saying “who gives a XXXX about Amelia Earhart, this is what what we’re here for…”

    • I’m not sure what you mean by your last sentence. To me it says “Here’s Amelia Earhart, the hero of the moment. I must get a good shot of her for the paper and I’m stuck at the back of the crowd!”

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  3. “You mean you were as drunk as a lord?”
    “Yes, my lord!”

  4. Abigail Quart says:

    The orange red coat, the focal point, is on the back of someone looking away from Earhart, not at her. And, since Sickert was painting from a b&w photo, it was a very deliberate choice to make that coat red. That’s why I couldn’t find her till you told me where to look. Also, Earhart seems smaller yet I don’t feel the distance warranted her being that much smaller. The painting itself, its title, its newsiness makes a big deal of Earhart, but it won’t let you look at her and it makes her small. Brilliant, but not nice, I’m thinking.

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