In 1896 the publisher William Heinemann commissioned the twenty-four-year-old artist William Nicholson to make a series of woodblock prints called “An Alphabet.” One of its best-known images, “A was an Artist,” is a self-portrait of Nicholson dressed as a pavement artist in a workingman’s waistcoat and boots, his shirt-sleeves rolled up for a job of work, a bandanna tied loosely around his neck (see illustration on page 24). The image so perfectly embodies our idea of the impoverished artist that we forget how novel such a conception was in England in the 1890s.
Even a decade earlier the word “artist” would have conjured up a picture of the silver-haired Frederic Leighton, presiding over a banquet at the Royal Academy, or hosting a musical soirée at his palatial home in Holland Park. Whether we think of G.F. Watts or John Everett Millais, Edward Burne-Jones or William Powell Frith, successful British artists tended to be prosperous members of the middle class, and proud of it. Even the more raffish ones like Dante Gabriel Rossetti and James McNeill Whistler had lived in some style. But of course Whistler belonged to an older generation, a generation for whom A stood not only for Artist but also for Aesthete.
And everybody knew what an Aesthete looked like. In 1892, only a few years before Nicholson’s self-portrait, William Rothenstein painted the artist Charles Conder in a black top hat, tight gloves, and slim greatcoat, swiveling around to face the spectator like a burglar caught with the family silver, or a giant beetle disturbed by the light. Rothenstein’s portrait of Conder joined Whistler’s of Robert de Montesquieu and John Singer Sargent’s of Graham Robertson as a defining image of the artist-as-dandy. As we shall see, Nicholson himself was to paint two of the last and greatest portraits of Aesthetes—but as elegies for the Whistlerian moment in British art. By dressing like a common laborer in his self-portrait, the young Nicholson presents himself to the world as a man of the people, distancing himself not only from the middle class into which he was born but also from the sartorial elegance that marked an artist out as an Aesthete.
In reality Nicholson was a bit of a dandy—or, at any rate, a snappy dresser. Compared to the Aesthetes, his dress sense was less of a symphony in gray and black than a quickstep in primary colors. Sanford Schwartz, in his consistently entertaining study of Nicholson’s life and work, tells us that
most of the distinguishing details of his clothing—braces, shirt, collar, waistcoat—were bright lemon yellow or orange-red or were spotted with dots of these colours. He would open up his jacket and a degree of bright light would spring forth. He would often be accompanied by some kind of abrupt little hat, and he frequently wore white ducks and a dark green jacket.
Though he ended his days with a knighthood and as a trustee of the …