Story: Painting

New Zealand’s spectacular landscapes and the indigenous Māori people were popular subjects for paintings from the first time Europeans first visited the country. The New Zealand art world was slow to accept new styles of painting, leading some artists to move overseas. Abstraction finally made it into New Zealand painting in the mid-20th century, and painting has continued to diversify.

Story by Jock Phillips
Main image: Christopher Perkins, 'Taranaki', 1931

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Early painting

While painting was not a major traditional art form for Māori, there was some painting on rock walls and as decoration in meeting houses.

The first Europeans to paint in New Zealand came with early explorers Abel Tasman and James Cook. In the first half of the 1800s artists, including Augustus Earle and George French Angas, visited New Zealand to visually record the country and its Māori inhabitants.

Settler painters

Many Europeans who settled in New Zealand in the 1800s were also amateur painters – the lack of clients meant it was impossible to be a professional painter at that time. Before photography, painting was a way of recording scenes.

The landscape was a major subject for paintings, which were in traditional European styles – new painting styles such as impressionism took a long time to get to New Zealand.

Paintings of Māori were also popular. The two most famous painters of Māori portraits were Gottfried Lindauer and Charles Goldie.

New influences, the 1890s

In the 1890s three professional painters – Petrus van der Velden, Girolamo Nerli and James Nairn – came to New Zealand from Europe. None of them stayed long, but they had a lasting impact on their students and introduced New Zealand to new styles of art.

Problems of isolation, 1900 to 1940

Frustrated by the provincialism of New Zealand society, many painters headed overseas. Some of them, such as Frances Hodgkins, never came back permanently. Hodgkins’s modernist art was not generally appreciated in New Zealand during her lifetime, though it was later celebrated.

A scheme that brought art teachers from overseas helped encourage more modern art.

Nationalism and landscape painting, 1935 to 1965

A group of artists based in Canterbury, including Rita Angus, Toss Woollaston and Colin McCahon, were inspired by post-impressionism. Rather than simply painting scenery, they often included typically Kiwi objects or buildings in their landscapes.

While landscape painting later became less fashionable, painters such as Don Binney and Robin White continued to include the landscape in their works.

Abstract painting

Abstract painting took a while to make it to New Zealand. Two early abstract painters were Gordon Walters, who is best known for his stylised koru (unfurling fern) paintings, and Milan Mrkusich, who painted geometric shapes. In the 1950s the work of other painters, such as Colin McCahon, became more abstract.

Later generations of abstract painters included Ralph Hōtere, Gretchen Albrecht and Max Gimblett.

Expressionism and postmodernism

Expressionist painting aims to evoke feelings, and often has bold colours and strong shapes. Important expressionist painters included Philip Clairmont and Tony Fomison. Nigel Brown’s paintings are expressionistic in style, but focus on social themes.

Postmodern art aims to break down traditional forms and emphasises multiple perspectives. For example, Dick Frizzell incorporated commercial branding into his artworks, playing with the traditional division between high and low art.

Women’s art

Encouraged by feminism, many woman artists challenged patriarchy or celebrated women in their paintings, especially from the 1970s.

Māori and Pacific art

From the 1940s some Māori artists combined traditional Māori culture with contemporary Western art. Important artists include Cliff Whiting, Robyn Kahukiwa and John Bevan Ford.

Pacific artists included Teuane Tibbo, John Pule and Michel Tuffery.

Painting in the 2000s

In the 2000s many painters also worked in other art forms. There was an increasing fascination with New Zealand’s own art history, and a number of artists included references to earlier paintings in their artworks.

How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Painting', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 June 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 22 October 2014