Philip Wilson Steer – Vibrant Beach Scenes

22 Aug

The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation. The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.”

(KIate Chopin, The Awakening)

Philip Wilson Steer, Boulogne Sands, 1888-91

Philip Wilson Steer painted some rather dull landscapes and some very atmospheric interiors with dreamy girls, but his most unique and eye-catching paintings are these vivacious and vibrant beach scenes painted in the late 1880s and first half of the 1890s. The radiant colours and the sketchy style is what makes these paintings so unique and extraordinary.

At the age of eighteen, Steer wished to work for the Civil Service but found the entrance exams too demanding. We are fortunate that didn’t occur, for he probably would not have become a painter. He proceeded to study at the Gloucester School of Art and Kensington Drawing Schools, but he wasn’t quite good enough for the Royal Academy of Art. After being rejected by the Academy, Steer went to Paris and there he studied from 1882 to 1884, first at the Academie Julian and then at the École des Beaux Arts where his teacher was Alexandre Cabanel. Despite the years spent at the academies, Steer returned to England not as a Cabanel copy-cat, rather he was more influenced by the works of the Impressionists that he had seen. Steer often visited the picturesque coastal little towns of Walberwick and Southwald in Suffolk, for he had friends there, and he painted people, mostly mothers and daughters, having their holidays in the sun. Despite being inspired by the Impressionist, Steer didn’t go full plein air, that is, he didn’t paint outdoors. Whilst on the beach, Steer would enjoy the scenery and liveliness all around him, take many sketches in his sketchbook and then later turn them into proper paintings in his studio. That way he could capture many fun scenes that happened on the beach in the same day and transform them into canvases full of dots, dashes, textures, sketchy imprecise and harsh brushstrokes.

Philip Wilson Steer, Watching Cowes Regatta, 1892

These beach scenes may appear sketchy and spontaneous, but Steer actually carefully planned each one and often took years to finish them. Each of them has a unique beauty; “Watching Cowes Regatta” has a wonderfully serene harmony of gentle blue tones and is reminiscent of some of Whistler’s paintings, in “Children Paddling” the water just shines and glimmers and the blueness is overwhelming, in “Girls Running” the two figures of girls dressed in matching dresses and matching red sashes is the most striking, and notice how they are not holding their hands, but their shadows are, in “Figures at the Beach” everything disappears in a blueish haze and the three girls in blue and white dresses are as sketchy as can be to still look recognisable, in “The Beach at Walberswick” the red is so intense and pulsating and contrasts beautifully with the blueness of the sea, and in the last painting what strikes me the most is how sketchy and nearly see-through the figures in the foreground are. A wonderful brushwork and a wonderful vibrancy of shades and colours constrasts truly make these beach scenes tangible and alive; one can hear the waves, the seagulls and the laughter of all these girls, feel the magic of the glimmering sea and feel the pebbles or sand underfoot.

“There were days when she was very happy without knowing why. She was happy to be alive and breathing, when her whole being seemed to be one with the sunlight, the color, the odors, the luxuriant warmth of some perfect Southern day. She liked then to wander alone into strange and unfamiliar places. She discovered many a sunny, sleepy corner, fashioned to dream in. And she found it good to dream and to be alone and unmolested.” (Kate Chopin, The Awakening)

Philip Wilson Steer, Walberswick, Children Paddling, 1894

Philip Wilson Steer, Girls Running, Walberswick Pier, 1888-94

Philip Wilson Steer, Figures on the Beach, Walberswick, 1888-89

Philip Wilson Steer, The Beach at Walberswick, 1889

Philip Wilson Steer, Southwold, 1889

11 Responses to “Philip Wilson Steer – Vibrant Beach Scenes”

  1. alan 22nd Aug 2020 at 6:00 pm #

    Lovely pictures. I like the Chopin quote which goes so well both with pictures and with the time. Thanks again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Byron's Muse 22nd Aug 2020 at 10:55 pm #

      Thank you for reading! I’m glad you think that Chopin’s quote fit so well.


  2. Upside-down Land 22nd Aug 2020 at 10:36 pm #

    Thanks for getting me on to Steer. How sad that someone so talented could be unknown to me for so long.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Byron's Muse 22nd Aug 2020 at 10:55 pm #

      I agree! Lately I am very interested in underrated artists, I feel like they deserve attention.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Jane 24th Aug 2020 at 4:06 pm #

    What a lovely post! I haven’t read The Awakening for years, but you’ve reminded me that maybe another read would be a good idea. These are beaches I know well but not the artist and they’re such beautiful paintings so I must do some exploring!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Byron's Muse 27th Aug 2020 at 4:05 pm #

      I haven’t read The Awakening in two years, but I also think I might read it again soon! It’s really short but so moving. Please go and do some exploring, I would do it if I were in your shoes. Thank you for stopping by and commenting 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. smilla72 26th Aug 2020 at 1:34 pm #

    Hi. Thanks for this beautiful introduction to a painter whom (l have to admit) I didn’t know so far. I find English painters best in describing the sea and everything happening on the beach. English composers were also very much attracted by the sea: you should listen the « Sea Symphony » by Ralph Vaughan Williams. You may also like Debussy’s « La Mer ». I also strongly recommend the sea paintings of Joaquin Sorolla, a Spanish impressionist. Greetings! Jean-Marc

    Liked by 1 person

    • Byron's Muse 27th Aug 2020 at 4:04 pm #

      I love Sorolla and Debussy’s music, and I will listen to the Sea Symphony by Vaughan that you recommend. The sea is such a muse! I could just gaze at the sea waves for hours and hours and get lost in it. Thank you for reading and commenting.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Tom 20th Nov 2022 at 6:24 pm #

    I love PWS. I remember coming across his paintings for the first time at the Tate Britain, having never heard of him before. “Boulogne Sands”, the first painting in this post, struck me in particular – I love the humorous juxtaposition of the children’s elegant, prim and proper Victorian clothes, and their wild, naturalistic poses – just doing whatever they want and being lively and free, like little animals.

    A similar thing is going on in Winslow Homer’s “Beach Scene” from your other post, which I hadn’t seen before, but with slightly less animality and humour. Still he captures the true joy and fascination of the children in the sea. I love the postures of the two boys on the left-hand side, so typical of children – the way that everything they are feeling can be instantly recognised from their posture and movement, as though they are dancing out their emotions.

    “Walberswick, Children Paddling” really captures the magical, golden glow the sun casts over the land in summer, with the light sparkling on the sea. L’Eternité indeed 🙂 You have quoted the Rimbaud poem with the sun ‘fled away with the sea’, which is a good translation of ‘la mer allée / Avec le soleil.’ Did you know that in the original version, he wrote ‘la mer melée avec le soleil’ ? Here, the sun and the sea are mixed, or melded.

    “Watching Cowes Regatta” is great – somehow nothing is better than a girl with long golden hair seen from behind at conveying the idea of dreaming 🙂 Something that is also true of Munch’s “Young Woman at the Beach”.

    “Girls Running” is astonishing – there is something almost mystical, metaphysical, about these two girls in their elegant white dresses, their hair and red sashes streaming behind them in the breeze, with their eery identical poses and featureless faces, and their slim dainty right foot touching the ground at a single point, as though they are flying rather than running… It reminds me of the girl playing with a hoop in di Chirico’s “Mystery and Melancholy of a Street” –

    It’s a quality I can’t quite explain or put into words but it makes the figures seem symbolic and eternal instead of just beautiful individual beings. The Wilson Steer you chose in your other post, “Young Woman at the Beach”, has this quality too, perhaps even more powerfully. The woman’s dark shoe, stocking and hair stand out in such contrast against the dazzling sand, sea and sky – she seems so definite and distinct, yet also blurry, in the way she is painted. Like a magical apparition.

    Thanks so much for sharing these beautiful paintings and your insightful thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Byron's Muse 23rd Nov 2022 at 2:40 pm #

      Thank you for this long comment and for sharing your thoughts about these paintings. I can really feel that you love these seaside scenes as much as I do! Your words are oozing enthusiasm and joy and that is wonderful to read. I have not read Rimbaud’s poems in original so this is an interesting observation. Most of all, I love your remarks about the painting “Girls Running” and how you connected it to Chirico, now I cannot stop thinking about it. There really is something slightly eerie about the girls, like some strange twins in a haunted abandoned place. Definitely thought-pondering. “Young Woman at the Beach” from another post is my new favourite by Wilson Steer, there is just something mysterious and alluring about her, as you said.


      • Tom 23rd Nov 2022 at 3:52 pm #

        Truly glad you enjoyed it 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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