When Chatterboxes by Philip Wilson Steer (1860-1942) was exhibited in the New English Art Club exhibition of 1887, it was greeted with derision by the conservative British press. The Illustrated London News led the outcry, complaining that the painting’s virtues ‘are obscured from our perception by the apparent smudginess or slovenliness of the method’. What the critics were objecting to was Impressionism, the new movement rocking the French establishment.
Steer had trained in Paris, where he had witnessed the radical experiments by the avant-garde. The Impressionists painted en plein air, and used dots of paint and loose brushstrokes to depict light and movement. These techniques, executed swiftly and without attention to detail, were used to capture fleeting moments in time, similar to that of a photograph.
The results were a revelation to Steer, who returned to England emboldened to do to the British seaside and landscape what the French Impressionists had done for the banks of the Seine.
Unfortunately, Britain’s art critics didn’t understand Impressionism, nor, it seems, did they wish to try. Steer’s glorious depictions of Victorian society at their leisure on the Suffolk coast were therefore dismissed as messy. The public, meanwhile, seemed to love Chatterboxes, and there were even reports of some ladies swooning in front of the picture at the New English Art Club exhibition.
As a result of the critical mauling, this modest and unassuming landscape painter came to be seen as uncompromisingly avant-garde and the centre of much controversy. It was only years later, in the aftermath of World War I, that his pictures came to represent a kind of lost innocence and his reputation was rehabilitated.
Chatterboxes was last exhibited in Paris in 1889, and it has been in private collections ever since. Its re-emergence sheds light on Steer’s little-known early career, which pre-dated his friendship with artists like Walter Sickert (1860-1942).
It is also a key link in the history of French and British Impressionism, which, confirms Christie’s specialist Rosie O’Connor in our video, ‘is another reason why it is really exciting to see this picture’. Steer, she says, is considered to be ‘the father of British Impressionism because his works influenced such a long line of artists who followed him in this tradition.’
The picture reveals the influence of the Impressionists on the young Steer: the bright dots of colour owed much to the Pointillism of Georges Seurat (1859-1891), while the long, bold brushstrokes he uses for the foliage were inspired by Camille Pissarro (1830-1903). Having embraced these techniques, Steer employs them to transform this relatively simple composition into a picture of great complexity, layering paint until the canvas appears to vibrate with colour.
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The picture is thought to have been executed by Steer on a trip to France in the late spring of 1886. The likely date is because the clothes the four girls sitting in the glade are wearing are similar to school uniforms worn by French students at the time.
The criticism that Chatterboxes and other paintings received in 1887 made Steer consider giving up painting altogether. The artist was fortunate, however, in having the art critic and novelist George Moore (1852-1933) as a supporter, who wrote of his artworks, ‘Mr Steer takes a foremost place in what is known as the modern movement’. A fan of French realism, Moore recognised in Steer’s pictures the progressive art force that revolutionised painting in Britain forever.