‘‘Acquiring a Foreign Accent’: painting as transnational language in Edwardian art writing’

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The notion of a ‘language of art’ was prevalent in Edwardian art writing. In 1908, the artist and critic Walter Sickert asserted in an article entitled ‘A New Life of Whistler’ that ‘the language of painting is just like any other language’. Sickert had recently returned to London from a prolonged sojourn in France, and throughout his essay wrote in praise of French art. Shortly after, his article was critiqued by Robert Baldwin Ross, critic of The Morning Post, who fixed upon the ambiguity of the artist’s assertion. Reacting against his enthusiasm for the French, Ross rejoined: ‘“The language of painting is just like any other language”. Is it? Why then go abroad in order to acquire a foreign accent, especially if there is no such thing as racial painting according to the Whistler doctrine.’ Here, Ross drew attention to the international and cosmopolitan connotations of the notion of a ‘language of painting’. Introducing the idea of a ‘foreign accent’, he focused on the most problematic aspect of the phrase: the possibility for art to be seen as a means of communication across national boundaries. This essay seeks to evaluate that idea, probing the limitations of art as cosmopolitan language as it appears in the art writing of Sickert and other contemporary critics and artists such as Ross and D. S. McColl in the first decade of the twentieth century.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationImagined Cosmopolis: Internationalism and Cultural Exchange, 1870s–1920s
PublisherPeter Lang
ISBN (Print)9783034318709
Publication statusPublished - 2019


  • Art criticism
  • Cosmopolitanism
  • Edwardian


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