Solved at last: experts uncover true identity of Degas' unhappy ballerina

A century on, Tate Britain reveals that subject of famous portrait was really painter Walter Sickert's wife

The sitter was not, as has long been thought, an obscure ballerina called Nelly Franklin. It has now been identified as a likeness of the wife of one of his artistic peers - and possibly the master French impressionist's only depiction of an Englishwoman.

Curators of a major exhibition at Tate Britain, at which the work will be displayed, now believe the image is of Ellen Cobden Sickert, an early figure in the women's movement and the wife of the British painter Walter Sickert.

Although regularly catalogued as a portrait of Franklin, the picture, known as Unhappy Nelly, actually disappeared from public view into a private collection and only recently came to light when it was acquired by the Museum of Montserrat. Richard Thomson, co-curator of the Tate exhibition, spotted it while on holiday and brought back a postcard.

His colleague Anna Robins, who had been rifling through archives, documents and photographs to put the exhibition together, immediately recognised the picture was of Ellen.

As well as the likeness, Ms Robins noted the loose tunic of the woman in the painting was like those worn by figures in the suffrage movement and what appeared to be the same locket was worn in a photo of Ellen and in the Degas.

She said: "It's a great find and it was a real moment of serendipity. Because I had various photographs of Sickert's wife I instantly recognised it as her. There's absolutely no doubt that it is her. Although her name was Ellen, her nickname was Nelly.

"No one had been aware that it was her because people were not aware of the extent to which Sickert and Ellen had been involved with Degas until we researched this show. Degas had actually developed a crush on her sister Jane."

The exhibition - Degas, Sickert and Toulouse-Lautrec: London and Paris 1870-1910 - explores the links between French and British artists of the period and how they shared ideas and techniques.

It gathers more than 100 works, with around 20 each from the three main figures on which it focuses. Among the many iconic images is Degas's L'Absinthe 1875-1876, lent by the Musée d'Orsay and not shown in London since the 19th century.

The works by Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec are those that are known to have been exhibited in British galleries at the time or were in British collections.

Degas, Sickert and Toulouse-Lautrec: London and Paris 1870-1910 opens on 5 October at Tate Britain and continues until 15 January

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: HR Assistant

£17447 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This organisation is a leading centre fo...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Case Handler

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Trainee Case Handler is requi...

Recruitment Genius: Junior Sales Apprentice

£15000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £20,000 - £60,000

£20000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence