Artist biography

English painter. He joined the Department of Coins and Medals at the British Museum in 1875 but turned to painting in 1878.

As a figure painter, Steer was influenced by Whistler and Degas. Portraits of his favourite model, Rose Pettigrew, executed in the early 1890s, are the most relaxed and original in this genre.

By the beginning of the 1890s Steer was the leading follower of French Impressionism in England. However, Steer's use of Impressionist techniques was idiosyncratic and determined by his response to the form and colour of his chosen motifs. Steer extensively reworked the composition until the balance between naturalistic representation and the demands of the picture surface came close to Symbolism.

Steer's style underwent radical change from c. 1895, when he began consciously to reassess the works of the Old Masters. In landscape painting this led him to re-examine the work of Rubens, Constable and Turner and to select his subject-matter from the august countryside of inland Britain. Between 1893 and 1911 he visited many of the favoured sites of the 18th-century picturesque tour.

Steer began to paint in watercolour in the early 1890s, although he always regarded the medium as preliminary to his oil paintings.

In 1927 Steer began to lose his sight in one eye and proceeded to paint almost exclusively in watercolour. His style in both oil and watercolour became looser yet compositionally more refined with his deteriorating vision, verging occasionally on total abstraction. . He continued to teach at the Slade until 1930.

Bibliography
D. S. MacColl: Life, Work and Setting of Philip Wilson Steer (London, 1945)
B. Laughton: Philip Wilson Steer (Oxford, 1971)
Philip Wilson Steer, 1860–1942 (exh. cat. by J. Munro, Cambridge, Fitzwilliam, 1986) [with bibliog.]

JANE MUNRO

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