Against the Light, by the River
Oil on board
19 x 13.25 inches
This painting, which is unsigned, is likely to have been done by Steer between 1888 and 1894 when he was experimenting freely with techniques he had seen in French Impressionist paintings in both Paris and in London. Steer received little encouragement in this from patrons, dealers and especially not from the critics. Even his peers thought him on an eccentric crusade, and by the turn of the century he had calmed down somewhat, and was painting in a more conventional way. In December 1889 some of his exciting earlier paintings were shown at the Goupil Gallery in an exhibition organised by Walter Sickert called The London Impressionists. The idea was to show that French ideas about painting could be applied to subjects close to home. One could say of the contributors that the Sickert camp, including Paul Maitland, Theodore Roussel and Sydney Starr followed the example of Whistler, and that a small group around Steer, such as Francis James and George Thomson (not the Canadian painter) were more radical. Fred Brown exhibited five pictures there, the titles of which show that he had been painting with Steer for much of that year (in Montreuil and Walberswick), but his technique was more set in tradition. Only Thomson painted with anything like the reckless exuberance of Steer, and he preferred landscape.>
Steer used brush, rag and knife with protean creativity on his early work, energetically scumbling, working and wiping his pictures to gain effects, and putting dabs of pure colour next to each other to generate tones, like the French ‘Divisionists’. Distinctively, Steer would break through wet paint to solid layers beneath using the back of the brush, and to outline with dry colours to edge his forms with light. Steer’s biographer, Bruce Laughton, refers to Steer's ‘broken touch technique’ of this period and associates it particularly with his figure paintings done by the seaside. Steer was very fond of the ‘lost’ profile of pretty models (such as Rose Pettigrew, to whom our picture bears a resemblance), seen against the light, as here, with the sun dancing on the water behind the girl’s head; in the background can be seen the outline of a Thames barge, a popular prop in Steer’s waterside pictures of the time.