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Object: The jockey

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Title The jockey
Production Wood, Christopher (artist), circa 1926-1927
Medium summary oil on canvas
Materials oil paint, canvas
Classification oil paintings
Dimensions Image: 560mm (Height) x 463mm (Width)
Frame: 753mm (Height) x 635mm (Width) x 87mm (Depth)
Credit line Purchased 1972 with assistance from the National Art Collections Fund, London and with Lindsay Buick Bequest funds
Registration number 1972-0003-1

Christopher Wood left England in 1921 and spent almost the whole of his short artistic career in France. There he received his training as a painter through a brief attendance at the Parisian art schools, but more importantly through visiting the studios and assimilating the advice of the leading contemporary artists — Picasso and Jean Cocteau.

This is one of two known paintings of jockeys by Wood. Undated, it has previously been assigned the date of 1923. Its stylistic sophistication and assured handling of the medium, however, suggest a later date of c.1926–27. The thickly textured paint surface, treatment of facial features and emphasis on contour are similar to his works of 1926 such as Nude (private collection) and Jean Bourgoint with Siamese cat (Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge). Wood’s first recorded interest in the subject dates from October 1925, when he was in London at work on designs for a ballet that he hoped would interest Sergei Diaghilev as a production for the Ballets Russes. Encouraged by Picasso and Cocteau, both of whom had designed for Diaghilev, Wood’s ambition was to be the first English artist to do so. The ballet, called English country life, was to feature scenes at the race course, and Wood made drawings of jockeys to this end, but the project was abandoned due to lack of support from Diaghilev.

In composition and style The jockey shows the influence of Picasso’s single-figure neoclassical paintings of 1919–24. The jockey’s jacket may be seen as Wood’s version of the harlequin, saltimbanque and matador costumes of Picasso’s models. Wood was introduced to Picasso in 1923 and described him as ‘the greatest painter of the day’.1 In turn Picasso took an interest in the younger artist, unexpectedly visiting his studio and inviting Wood to visit him. Picasso gave Wood advice on painting techniques and suggested that he limit his palette to a few colours. The blue, grey, brown, black and white colour scheme, which became Wood’s signature palette, contributes significantly to The jockey’s elegantly austere beauty. Equally pertinent to the style of The jockey are the drawings of Cocteau, whose elegant linear style is recalled in Wood’s white calligraphic line, delineating the figure’s contour.

Victoria Robson

This essay appears in Art at Te Papa (Te Papa Press, 2009).

1. Christopher Wood, letter to his mother, 6 July 1923, Tate Gallery archive 773.3, cited in Virginia Button, Christopher Wood, St Ives Artists series, Tate Publishing, London, 2003, p. 24.

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