PHILIP WILSON STEER OM (1860 - 1942)
Sketch of Mrs Cyprian WIlliams (1891)
• Oil on board, 9 x 11"
• Signed lower right
Williams family, acquired direct from the artist 1891;
Private collection, acquired at Sotheby's Auction, sold by executors of Mrs H. R. Williams 1940;
Private collection, acquired at Sotheby's 1990.
Featured on page 192 of D. S. MacColl, Life Work and Setting of Philip Wilson Steer, 1945
Mrs Cyprian Williams was an amateur artist who occasionally exhibited as a non-member at the New English Art Club with Steer, and the wife of a well-known art collector, T Cyprian Williams. According to MacColl's 1945 catalogue, there are three direct portraits of Mrs Cyprian Williams in existence. The best known, and largest of the three, measuring 30 x 40”, is Mrs Cyprian Williams and her Two Little Girls completed in 1891, and is now owned by the Tate. The other two works, of which this is one, are alla prima sketches where the grain and patterning of the wood panels they are completed on remain visible through the thin oil paint. The third work, measuring 11 x 9", is owned by the Courtald Institute of Art and and is a full length study. Both of these sketches were also completed in 1891, and are likely to have served as preparatory studies for the larger commissioned work. MacColl indicates that the work here was completed while Steer was staying at Hayling Island, and it would not be surprising if he had completed this alongside the other sketch in the same few days.
Here, Mrs Cyprian Williams is seen in profile reading a book in a reclining position, head resting upon a pillow. The portrait is unconventional for the time since the sitter’s hands are strongly emphasised, an arrangement that John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) liked to use, who was also exhibiting at the NEAC as a contemporary.
Philip Wilson Steer (Figure 1) was born in 1860 in Birkenhead. He received his main training in Paris between the years 1882 to 1884, first at the Academie Julian and then the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Following his formal training, he revisited France on several occasions and with his close contemporaries he was responsible for founding the New English Art Club in 1886 (Figure 2). The NEAC was a grouping of mostly French-trained young artists united by their opposition to the anecdotal content requirements in contemporary Royal Academy painting. Around this time, Steer was at his peak, creating his beach scenes and seascapes that are widely regarded as the best impressionist paintings to come out of Britain. They include scenes of the well-known seaside resort at Walberswick in Suffolk, remarkable because of their freshness and deft handling of light.
Just three years after its inauguration, Steer moved away from the NEAC which was becoming increasingly dominated by the likes of George Clausen and Stanhope Forbes with their rustic-naturalist clique. He joined his friend, and exact contemporary, Walter Sickert, in a key exhibition titled the ‘London Impressionists’ in 1889 at the Goupil Gallery, a show in which he would have seen twenty or so paintings by Monet. This continued exposure to the style of French Impressionism led him to embark on a period of experimentation which lasted until the mid-1890s. The work created during this period is reminiscent of the light and atmospheric handling of Whistler, to the more intensely-coloured and impasto mark-making of Monet, and in a few instances, to the pointillist technique of Seurat and Signac.
After about 1895, Steer’s work became more conventional and more closely linked to the English tradition of Gainsborough, Turner and Constable, and by the turn of the century, Steer was regarded as an essentially English painter. With panoramic landscapes from after the turn of the century, such as The Horseshoe Bend of the Severn, Steer emerged as an icon of Englishness, and was recognised for his services to art in 1931 with the Order of Merit. His sight began to fail in the mid-1930s and by 1940 he had stopped painting entirely. In 1942 he developed bronchitis and in March of that year he died in his home in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea. A retrospective memorial exhibition was held the following year at the National Gallery.
Examples of Steer’s work are found in internationally renowned institutes of art and include the Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Tate Britain, and the Courtald Institute of Art, London.
D. S. MacColl, 1945, Life Work and Setting of Philip Wilson Steer, Faber and Faber Ltd, London
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