From Ranelagh to the Bauhaus – Oliver O’Hanlon on Irish artist Stella Steyn

An Irishman’s Diary

Described by one of her art tutors as "a pupil of genius", Stella Steyn trained in Dublin, Berlin and Paris in the 1920s. She is thought to be the only Irish artist to have studied at the Bauhaus school of art in Germany, but has been slightly forgotten in Ireland.

While in Paris, she brushed shoulders with the Irish émigrés James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. Stella was herself the child of emigrants. Her father, William Steyn, arrived in Ireland in the 1870s from Akmene, in what is today northern Lithuania. In Limerick, he met Bertha Jaffe, whose family had moved to Ireland from Berlin.

They married in 1890 and moved to Dublin where he practised as a dentist. Stella was born in Ranelagh in 1907, the youngest of the couple's four children. After school at Alexandra College, she spent a brief time in Berlin studying art. She then enrolled at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art (now NCAD) and studied there from 1924 to 1926.

Her life-class tutor, Patrick Tuohy, who had studied under William Orpen, introduced Stella to the work of French artists, Paul Cézanne in particular. Like so many talented young Irish painters of the period, Stella went abroad for further training after her studies in Dublin.

In 1926, along with fellow Irish painter Hilda Roberts, Stella went to Paris. She spent most of the next five years there, attending art schools and working in a studio in Montparnasse, the artists' quarter. To her, Paris was "the most stimulating place for the artist who really wants to work".

It was at that time that she met Samuel Beckett and her tutor from Dublin, Patrick Tuohy, arranged for her to be introduced to James Joyce. Tuohy had painted Joyce's portrait a couple of years previously and was also commissioned to paint Joyce's father, John Stanislaus Joyce, as well as Joyce's two children, Giorgio and Lucia.

A family acquaintance is said to have advised Stella against meeting Joyce, saying that he was a “thorough ruffian” who “had written a book no decent person would read”.

Nevertheless, she went ahead and met him. She heard him sing an Irish melody while playing the piano.

This prompted her to ask him if he missed Ireland. He said that he did, but that he would not like to return as “they jeer too much”.

Stella became friends with Lucia, Joyce's youngest child, and was asked to teach her how to paint and draw. Joyce also asked Stella to illustrate Anna Livia Plurabelle, an instalment of Finnegans Wake, for the experimental modernist magazine Transition. As she could not really make head nor tale of the writing, Joyce had to give her a brief synopsis, along with the instruction to respond to the musicality of the language in the piece.

Stella exhibited at the Royal Hibernian Academy from 1927 to 1930. In 1928, she was one of five Irish artists who each entered a piece in the art competition of the Olympic Games. Artists submitted works depicting sports played at the Games. Hers was entitled "Sur la Glace" (On the Ice).

She did not win, but at the Tailteann Games held that year, she was awarded a silver medal for the art work that she entered for that competition.

The influence of Paris in her work was obvious at a 1928 exhibition of some of her pencil sketches and watercolours in Dublin. Titles of the watercolours included Autumn – the Quays, Paris; Showers on the Seine; and Rue de Seine, Paris.

The following year, she exhibited in Manhattan with other Irish artists, including Paul Henry, Seán Keating, and Harry Clarke, in an exhibition which the New York Times said would be the "revival of Irish art". In 1934, her work was featured in another exhibition of Irish art in New York, this time alongside John Lavery, Jack B Yeats, and the sculptor Andrew O'Connor.

Steyn is believed to be the only Irish artist to have attended the Bauhaus school of art in Dessau. Founded by the architect Walter Gropius in Weimar in 1919, it had the idea of reimagining the material world "to reflect the unity of all the arts".

She enrolled in 1931 and during the year that she spent there her teachers included Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Joseph Albers.

However, rather than turning her into a disciple of the Bauhaus, the year in Dessau made her turn against it (or at least the later stages of the movement).

She felt that her stay at the Bauhaus was “a false move” and said that it made her appreciate “painting which had its roots in tradition”.

In this regard, she cited Impressionism and Post-Impressionism.

Stella married the academic David Ross in 1938 and lived the rest of her life in England, where she died in 1987.