Tag Archives: Jenny

Philip Wilson Steer – Girl in a Blue Dress

9 Sep

Philip Wilson Steer, Girl in a Blue Dress, c. 1891

I have recently written about Philip Wilson Steer’s vibrant and unique beach scenes, but today I would like to focus on these lovely portraits of his model, muse and girlfriend Rose Pettigrew. Little is known of their relationship, but we do know that Rose posed for him for eight years and on one occasion said: “I love posing for Philip; and first of all posed for little money as I thought he was very poor, and child as I was, wanted to help him”. This dim lit interior is a harmony of browns and blues; the limited colour palette and the girl’s pose reminds me of some of Whistler’s portraits. Also, I would never assume that a simple combination of brown and blue could create such an aesthetically pleasing painting. This is no luxurious salon, the girl is sitting on a simple hard wooden chair and only a window showing the night sky is seen behind her. We don’t see her face because she is focused on the little book of pictures that she is holding in her hand. This makes the painting appear casual and intimate, this isn’t a formal sitting with the girl staring straight at us, trying to hold a feign smile, but rather Steer portrayed this lovely girl while she was amused by something else. He gazed at the object of his fascination and affection as one would a bird in its cage; we see less of Rose’s character and more of Steer’s perception of her. In a humble interior, Rose shines nonetheless because Steer’s brush is tinged with sensuality and melancholy. When the lights are dim, the barriers fall down. Her gorgeous blue dress with white dots here and there looks like a night sky littered with sparkling, silvery stars. In “Girl on a Sofa”, it’s the girl’s slender little hand that is the most sensual detail to me. Her blushing cheeks and gaze hidden from us speak of her girlish shyness. These verses from Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poem “Jenny” come to my mind as I gaze at these paintings:

“All golden in the lamplight’s gleam,—
You know not what a book you seem,
Half-read by lightning in a dream!
(….)
And I should be ashamed to say:—
Poor beauty, so well worth a kiss!
But while my thought runs on like this
With wasteful whims more than enough,
I wonder what you’re thinking of.”

Philip Wilson Steer, Girl on a Sofa, 1891