The Stella Steyn Collection

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The paintings of Stella Steyn - flower and fruit still lifes, self-portraits and portraits of friends and family, nudes and cityscapes - enchant us with their poetic freshness and a charged, almost childlike immediacy and intimacy of feeling. These qualities are underpinned by a highly assured, intuitively graceful sense of form and a subtle though sometimes sumptuous delight in colour. The lyrical sweetness of so many of her pictures, and the sharply rendered poignancy of others, were born out of a uniquely heightened way of perceiving the world. In a Preface to the catalogue for Steyn’s 1951 exhibition at London’s Leicester Galleries, David Sylvester (who was renowned as perhaps the leading British art critic) wrote: ‘ ... the archaic simplicity and grandeur of her forms are not cultivated by way of conforming with preconceived notions of style, designed to charm, but belong to her way of seeing ... she sees the world with a gaze as innocent as it is grave.’ Such exhilarating lightness of spirit and sincere seriousness of purpose co-exist throughout her work.

Stella Steyn (Centre) with Maurice
MacGonigal RHA, Patrick Touhy RHA, Hilda Roberts ARHA and Fritzel Allen at
the Metropolitan School of Art, Dublin c.1925

Stella Steyn was born in December 1907 into a Dublin Jewish family. Her father, William Steyn had moved from Russia to Limerick in the 1870s. Her mother, Bertha Jaffe had moved from Berlin with her family also to live in Limerick. The couple were married in Limerick in 1890 and soon afterwards settled in Dublin. William (who was a prosperous dentist in Dublin) and Bertha had two daughters, Stella and Mabel. Stella was educated at Alexandra College, Dublin. However, a visit to Berlin, where she briefly studied art, proved influential, and on her return home, she enrolled at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, where she studied from 1924-6.

Stella Steyn c.1930

Her fellow student, Hilda van Stockum, the Dutchborn, Irish-trained still life painter, recalled many years later (Irish Times, 16th November 1983) the considerable dash that the youthful Stella cut at the Metropolitan. ‘Stella Steyn awed me with her elegance; she had long black ringlets framing her face, and wore artistic colour combinations and fashionable get-ups. She was very talented, did beautiful drawings in the Harry Clarke/Aubrey Beardsley style until she went to Paris to study and came back doing very airy and witty French-style creations.’ Patrick Tuohy (1894-1930), the Dublin-born portrait and figure painter - and friend of the Steyn family - taught Steyn and van Stockum at the Metropolitan (the latter recalling his work as ‘sensitive, painstaking and subtle... in the traditional style’). Steyn later wrote: ‘Tuohy was interested in me and my work. He talked about French painting to me and regretted that he himself had not spent a period studying in Paris. Tuohy spoke frequently about Cézanne to me and tried to explain his aims.’

In 1926, with Tuohy’s encouragement, Steyn visited Paris for the first time – an historic and stimulating period, as she later said, ‘while painters like Utrillo, Modigliani, Soutine and Pascin were still working, or had very recently worked in Paris, and were to be seen in the galleries’ - accompanied by her mother and two friends, one of whom was the talented Dublin-born painter Hilda Roberts (1901-82). Paris was then indisputably the centre of the art world, the capital of modern, pioneering art. Two of the greatest modern Irish artists - the painter Mainie Jellett (1897-1944) and the stained glass artist Evie Hone (1894-1955) - had set a remarkable precedent: they had gone to Paris to study in the studios of avantgarde Modernist painters in the early 1920s.

During the late 1920s, Steyn was establishing herself as a successful, progressive young Irish artist. She was awarded the Tailteann Silver Medal at the Metropolitan in Dublin in 1928. From 1927-30 she showed a total of nineteen pictures at the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin, and two works at the New English Art Club in London. In 1929 she exhibited in New York (and later Boston) in ‘The first American exhibition of contemporary Irish art... at the Helen Hackett Gallery’ - in which she was awarded the Californian Gold Medal for poster design. In a long newspaper review of the show for The New York Times, the poet and critic George Russell (‘A.E.’) - after singling out the ‘wild poetry’ of Jack Yeats and the ‘’ of Harry Clarke - wrote from Dublin: ‘We have, as every country has, young moderns like Miss Stella Steyn and Miss Mainie Jellett in revolt against academic art and tradition. I can see their talent though they speak an artistic language not known when I was a boy and which I do not perfectly comprehend.’

Others were more appreciative of Steyn’s apparently rebellious ‘artistic language’. In 1929, Joyce introduced her work to various connoisseurs in the Parisian artistic and literary world, and ‘he also asked me if I would like to do a few illustrations for Finnegan’s Wake, which was appearing in instalments in [the avant-garde, mostly English-language, Parisian-based journal] Transition.’ She felt rather alarmed at this request to illustrate such a groundbreaking text. ‘He read passages from the part he suggested to me. I think it was old Ondt’s funeral and the rivers of the world holding the train of Anna Livia (the Liffey).’ She found the writing obscure, and so he ‘drew my attention to the musical quality of the language... He also tried to explain about meaning on more than one level, and there was something about the chemical constituents of the large egg I afterwards drew to pull in the Earwig’s funeral, but I can’t remember what it was, exactly, he told me to draw, and why. He expressed himself satisfied, however, and gave me a copy of Transition, which he signed and dated.’ 

The range of self-portraits that Stella Steyn produced after about 1950 show her growing self-assurance both as a person and as an artist. Rendered with a lucid, delicate palette, using swift, sure, spontaneous brushwork, these are sensitive studies of her attractive, rather rounded countenance, her brown hair scraped back from a centre parting, her varied looks full of warm, tentative, alert human feeling. Later selfportraits show her with grey hair - but always the same kind of piercing, moving regard from her ‘yeux noirs décidés’.

The influence of French painting is seen perhaps most keenly in Steyn’s flower paintings, and also her pictures of still-life objects. Her keen study of French artists of various periods - ranging probably from Chardin to Vuillard, from Cézanne to Matisse - became naturally part of her unique approach, her own voice as an artist. Such study heightened her native self-assurance, enriching her painter’s vocabulary without an element of pastiche. She perceived and portrayed flowers, plants, fruit, jugs and pots with joyous vividness. And yet for all the exploratory exuberance of the flower studies, a fine delicacy is always evident in the overall arrangement of shapes and colours.

Steyn had a one-man show at London’s celebrated Leicester Galleries in 1951, and a joint exhibition there in 1954 with the leading British painter Ivon Hitchens (1893-1979). This pairing of Hitchens and Steyn was a wonderfully inspired choice, as they have in common an impressively intuitive, fresh painterly approach to nature and still-life painting, especially in their representation of plants and flowers. Between 1952 and 1959, she exhibited almost annually at London’s Royal Academy Summer Exhibition - with three paintings selected in 1955.

Stella Steyn died in December 1987 at her home in Tavistock Square in London’s Bloomsbury. She was the least parochial of Irish artists: as a friend of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett in Paris, as a keenly perceptive admirer of modern French painting and also as the only Irish artist to study at the German Bauhausunder Kandinsky and Klee. Her inspired cosmopolitanism was unselfconsciously absorbed into her pure, original ‘way of seeing’, into her paintings so full of vigour and humane delight.