Louis John Steele was born in England at Reigate, Surrey, on 30 January 1842, the son of Harriet Thompson and her husband, John Sisson Steele, a surgeon. His mother was said to have been a cousin of the French painter William Haussoullier.
Louis was educated at Reigate and at the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts in Paris, but in his early 20s he went to Florence to further his studies in painting. (A pencil self-portrait done in Florence is in the Auckland City Art Gallery collection.) He was in Paris again during the siege of 1870–71. Until the end of his life he preserved proclamations of the Paris Commune and a balloon (aerial) map of the barricades, and would regale young listeners with tales of the fighting and privations suffered then.
Back in England Steele exhibited paintings at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1872 and 1875, and etchings – after William Orchardson, Briton Riviere, Marcus Stone, Helen Allingham and S. E. Waller – each year from 1881 to 1886. He appears to have been particularly close to Orchardson, whose 'Napoleon on board the Bellerophon' (1880) he engraved and exhibited in 1885. It was the largest etching until then made in England.
By the time Steele came in search of health to Auckland, New Zealand, about 1886, he was moderately well known, having exhibited not only at the Royal Academy but also at the Salon in Paris and the Exposition internationale de Lille. Critics wrote of the 'mossy touch' and exceptional richness of tone of his engravings, some of which were published by Tooth's gallery and in magazines such as the Portfolio and the Art Journal.
In Auckland he set up a studio in the Victoria Arcade in Shortland Street and opened a class for life studies and the antique. Putting etching to one side, he returned to painting portraits and historical subjects; he took great interest in the Maori and recorded their activities in several fine paintings. Among his subjects were Bishop W. G. Cowie, John Logan Campbell, George Grey, J. T. Mackelvie, Alice Watkins (wife of his artist friend Kennett Watkins), and a Maori chief, Mohi. He also painted portraits of racehorses.
Steele's history paintings were sometimes very large and painted jointly with another artist. His former pupil, C. F. Goldie, collaborated in 'The arrival of the Maori in New Zealand' (1898), and Kennett Watkins in 'The burning of the Boyd' (also known as 'The blowing up of the Boyd'). 'The last stand of Captain Starlight' was toured around Australia and is believed to have been subsequently sent to England, while 'The story of a saddle' is said to have found an owner in France.
Steele was an active member of the French Club in Auckland and always dressed in slightly Bohemian fashion, as he might have done in Paris. The Weekly Standard described his studio in 1894 as 'a combination of art gallery, museum and general curiosity shop, with himself as a genial showman.' He was a regular exhibitor with the Auckland Society of Arts and sent paintings to international exhibitions in Melbourne (1888–89), Dunedin (1889–90) and Christchurch (1906–7). In 1912 he exhibited four miniatures at the first showing of the Auckland Arts and Crafts Club.
Steele was alone when he came to New Zealand, but he had married Marie Louise Alexandrine Piatti, probably the daughter of the Florentine painter Giulio Piatti. They apparently had two sons: Ernest Henri and Louis John Sisson Piatti Steele, the latter born in August 1871. Miniatures of these two boys were exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1877 by Louise Steele.
In his later years Steele lived with a married couple at Devonport, until, in failing health, he moved to the Costley Home at Greenlane. On 16 August 1917 there was an auction of the contents of his studio, claimed by the auctioneer to be the most valuable art collection ever offered in the dominion. There were oil paintings by Steele, William Etty and Piatti, engravings, miniatures (one by Richard Cosway), portfolios of sketches and Maori studies, Pacific islands and Maori curios, a Chippendale cabinet, sterling silver candlesticks, old china and glass. The proceeds may have gone to repay debts. After his death at Auckland on 12 December 1918, his estate was valued at under £170.
Louis Steele had made an important contribution to the art life of Auckland. He excelled as a teacher and had steeped himself in New Zealand life. As a history and portrait painter he left many notable works, and as an engraver he had introduced skills not previously seen in New Zealand. He is represented by works in the National Art Gallery, the Hocken Library and the Auckland City Art Gallery.