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Philip Wilson Steer: 1860 - 1942

Philip Wilson Steer was born on December 28, 1860, at Birkenhead, England. His ancestors were Devon yeoman farmers and shipbuilders. His father, an art teacher, had moved north in order to take up a post there. When Steer was four the family moved to Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire, where his father died seven years later. As a child he had plenty of opportunity and encouragement to experiment with drawing
and painting. He came across a book containing engravings of the old masters shown in the Manchester Exhibition of 1857. His careful scrutiny of these left him with a great admiration for Turner. He went to Hereford Cathedral School and Glouster Art School.

In 1882 Steer went to Paris, where he entered the Academie Julian and a year later the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He had to leave the latter when it was made compulsory to pass an examination in French. So he returned to England, having seen a little of contemporary French art apart from the 1883 Edouard Manet memorial exhibition. Back in London he took a studio, working and teaching all the winter and spending the summers by the sea.

In 1886, aged 26, Steer was a founding member of the New English Art Club, which brought him into contact with Whistler. The club stood firm against William Morris's condemnation of modern painting and made it its aim to use everyday things for subject-matter. Steer was greatly concerned with the visible world and made innumerable landscape studies. He loved the sea, and one of his favorite themes was young girls on the shore. The blurred, misty quality of his On the Pier-head, 1887, aroused public antagonism.

About 1888 his mature style established itself and for about five years he was the most advanced painter in England. The dominant influences on him of Whistler and Manet gave way to a clear awareness of Impressionism. An exhibition of Impressionist paintings held in the early 1880's at Dowdeswells was his first introduction to Monet and Renoir, and in 1889 there was another Impressionist exhibition, in Goupil's London gallery.

After some years, however, Steer's style changed. He began to work up his pictures at home rather than paint entirely direct from nature. His color became heavier, his forms more substantial. The painters who then inspired him were Constable, Gainsborough, Rubens, and Tintoretto. For 31 years, from 1899 to 1930, he taught at the Slade School of Art, London, finding gentle phrases for his criticism and giving more attention to his students' sense of color than to anything else. He was influenced by his fellow teacher Henry Tonks and particularly by Turner.

Steer held many exhibitions. His first one-man show was in 1894 and he had a retrospective exhibition at the Tate Gallery in 1929. But although his work was usually pleasing, he failed to live up to his earlier promise. By 1940 his eyesight, which had been deteriorating for some time, was almost totally gone. He died on March 21, 1942.




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