Dorothy Kate Richmond was born on 12 September 1861 at Parnell, Auckland, New Zealand, the third of five children of Mary Smith and her husband, James Crowe Richmond, a notable colonist and politician. Known throughout her life by the pet name Dolla, she grew up in the extended Richmond–Atkinson family which had settled in Taranaki. The family was informed and vocal about social problems, involved in New Zealand politics, and known for its tolerance, sense of duty and active practice of the arts. Dolla's father was a competent artist and had studied briefly at a London drawing academy.
In early 1862 Dolla was taken to Nelson where James had become editor of the Nelson Examiner. From 1863 to 1865 he was also a member of the executive of the Nelson Provincial Council. When Dolla was four her mother died suddenly from scarlet fever, just four months after the birth of a fifth child. James took his five young children back to Taranaki. As a member of the Stafford ministry between 1866 and 1869 he was often away from home and Dolla and her brothers and sister were farmed out to relatives, in particular to James's sister Jane Maria Atkinson, known as Maria. Despite his frequent absences James passed on his love of drawing and painting to his daughter, and his minutely detailed and finely constructed landscapes in watercolour laid the foundation of her visual education.
When the family moved back to Nelson in about 1869, Dolla Richmond attended Miss Bell's Young Ladies' College. She was also taught by her aunt Maria, whose family had already shifted to Nelson. In 1873 James took the three eldest children to England and Europe for further education. Dolla lived for a year with her maternal grandmother and attended Miss Cranch's school in Blackheath with English cousins. She spent 1874 at a school in Zurich; during 1875 and 1876 she was in Dresden. Her father, in Algeria supervising the construction of a railway, wrote of the charm of her letters and of 'evident gleams of the unfolding of a mind beyond the average'.
In a December 1875 letter to her brothers in New Zealand Dolla Richmond wrote that she was having drawing lessons and had begun to draw heads from statues. By May 1878 when Dolla was 16 her father reported to his sister-in-law, Emily Richmond, that Dolla had developed 'a great taste for the life of a refined intellectual swell' and showed a reluctance to return to New Zealand. That year she attended Bedford College for women in London and began a two-year course at the Slade School of Fine Art, where women had equal access with men to the life model. She so progressed that in April 1879 she was promoted from plaster casts to the life school under Alphonse Legros, and by June 1880 her work gained her a Slade scholarship – a rare distinction for a woman student. When Dolla returned to Nelson in late 1880 she was one of a small group of New Zealand-born women to have received a professional training in art.
After her return Dolla Richmond stayed at home keeping house for her father, decorating furniture and making a garden. In 1883 she was appointed art mistress at the newly opened Nelson College for Girls. She left New Zealand in March 1885 to continue study in Europe, but became ill and had to remain in Dieppe until her father and sister could join her. She was taken to Italy to recover. Back in Nelson, alone after her sister's marriage to Tudor Atkinson, Dolla Richmond began to paint seriously, using her relatives and domestic help as models for oil portraits. In 1889 she travelled with her father in Europe. By 1890 she was working with the local sketch club in Nelson and had become an artist member of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts. She and her father moved to Wellington in 1894 and in 1896 Dolla was studying with James Nairn.
After the death of her father in January 1898, Dolla Richmond was left financially independent. In December that year she was elected to the council of the NZAFA, but resigned soon after to study painting again in Europe. She met Frances Hodgkins in 1901 at a summer school at Caudebec, which was taken by an English watercolourist, Norman Garstin. The two women then travelled in France and Italy painting genre scenes of town life. In 1902 they joined the fraternity of artists at Newlyn, Cornwall, and the following year worked again with Garstin in Belgium and Holland. Richmond then visited Scotland while Hodgkins painted in North Africa. They returned to New Zealand together at the end of the year.
Frances Hodgkins wrote her sister Isabel Field a shrewd assessment of Richmond: 'she will never be a great painter, she has nice taste & judgement but lacks fire and originality'. However, the two artists rented a studio in Bowen Street, Wellington, where they taught private pupils. In 1904 they mounted an exhibition of 80 of their European paintings at McGregor Wright and Company's Art Gallery in Lambton Quay. In June 1905 they painted Maori women in Rotorua, although Richmond may have painted her 'Potato peelers' later, from a postcard. When Hodgkins left New Zealand in early 1906 Richmond kept both the Bowen Street studio and the private pupils. She lived in Wellington and later at York Bay, near Eastbourne.
After the death of James Nairn in 1904 there was little artistic stimulus in Wellington until Dolla Richmond became an admired focus as a teacher, showing by example the ability of a woman to establish and continue an enlivening career in art. From around 1909 until 1924 she held classes at Fitzherbert Terrace School, renamed the Samuel Marsden Collegiate School in 1920. A stimulating and much-loved teacher, she remained a serious practitioner, exhibiting four to six paintings at art society exhibitions in Wellington, Auckland and Christchurch from 1905 until 1934.
Richmond served on the council of the NZAFA again from 1904 to 1926 and from 1930 to 1935. As a member she was quick to recognise young talent, that of Owen Merton, for example, in 1906. She also used her influence to urge purchases of work by Frances Hodgkins and Margaret Stoddart, and to prevent the quarrying of Paritutu, a rock hill on the foreshore at New Plymouth. Richmond said Paritutu belonged to the nation and that any attempt to interfere with it was as much an act of vandalism as the destruction of Reims cathedral. However, although she was an active member of the council for about 30 years and honoured as a life member of the academy in 1928, she was never elected to a position of responsibility. Instead she headed ladies' committees for catering, fund-raising and organising a studio club.
Dolla Richmond never married. She died in Wellington on 16 April 1935. In a review of seven sparse untitled watercolours shown in Canterbury soon after her death, Frederick Page, an informed critic of New Zealand art, wrote, 'all are of rare delicacy, and possess a half-dream, half-actual quality that makes these lovely pictures seem all that pictures should be.' This unique poetic quality has given Richmond's work a valued place in the history of New Zealand painting. Her subject matter was of its period – botanical studies, still life, landscape and a few portraits – but because she had an individual style and a subtle colour sense her painting has not dated. The civilised, tolerant restraint of her character shaped her work and left its imprint on her students. She is represented in 14 public collections.