Traditional Māori painting
The painting of images on surfaces such as walls or canvases is a long-established human activity. It began in New Zealand within the first centuries of human settlement, when Māori drew on the rock walls of caves. As large wharenui (meeting houses) began to be built, Māori also painted kōwhaiwhai to decorate their rafters. In the later 19th century some wharenui, for example Rongopai near Gisborne, were decorated with figurative paintings rather than the traditional carvings.
In the later 20th century Māori artists made a major creative contribution by combining Māori traditional patterns and concepts with modern Western art.
The first Westerners to represent New Zealand scenes were temporary visitors recording the country for European audiences. They included those who accompanied the early explorers:
- Isaac Gilsemans, the artist on Dutch explorer Abel Tasman’s short visit in 1642
- Sydney Parkinson, on English explorer James Cook’s first voyage to New Zealand (1769–70), who was hired to do botanical drawing for Joseph Banks but recorded the land and its inhabitants after the official artist for the voyage, Alexander Buchanan, died in Tahiti
- William Hodges, on Cook’s second voyage (1772–75)
- John Webber, on Cook’s third voyage (1776–79).
Later there were travellers who set out to document a strange new world across the seas. Of significance were:
- Augustus Earle, ‘the wandering artist’, who spent nine months in the Bay of Islands in 1827–28
- George French Angas, who published two books of paintings on the basis of a six-month stay in New Zealand in 1844
- William Strutt, who arrived in 1855 from Melbourne intending to farm in Taranaki, but left in 1856 having completed some important paintings.
Amateur settler painters
Painting was also a pursuit that many settlers enjoyed, both as relaxation and as a way to document their experiences and travels in days before cameras. For well-bred women it was, like singing, an expected accomplishment; and gentlemen also recorded sights in watercolour sketches. Most early paintings were by amateurs rather than professional painters – people like politician and explorer William Fox, the New Zealand Company surveyor Charles Heaphy, Otago province’s botanical draughtsman John Buchanan, Taranaki school teachers Martha King and John Kinder, and Dunedin lawyer William Mathew Hodgkins.
Painting … and paperhanging
Charles Blomfield’s business card from the 1880s illustrated how hard it was to make a living on just artistic painting. It read: ‘Landscape Artist in Oil. House, Sign, And Decorative Painter … Always On Hand: Paperhangings, In Great Variety. Borders, Scrim, Tacks etc. White Lead, Oils, Colours, Varnishes, and all Painters’ Materials. Oleographs, Chromos, Engravings, Gilt and Stained Mouldings … Picture Frames Made to Order.’
The lack of a wealthy clientele, the distance from larger markets and the small population delayed the emergence of professional painters in New Zealand until the late 19th century. Even then, after the arrival of art schools from the 1880s, many only survived by teaching. This remained true for the first half of the 20th century; only from the 1960s were a few serious professional painters able to survive by selling their paintings to a growing middle-class market.
Subject and style
With few rich people to pay for portraits, and an undeveloped city life, the subject of much New Zealand painting was the landscape. Painters documented the distinctive shapes of the land and promoted the beauty of the country. The one major figurative subject was Māori – partly because Europeans wished to record their features and way of life. Others saw Māori as a picturesque extension of the landscape.
New Zealand painters inherited styles of painting from Europe, and they often followed European masters such as J. M. W. Turner or the impressionists. However, New Zealand’s distance from the old world meant painters were often late in adopting the latest overseas styles. There was considerable cultural lag – impressionism arrived a generation after its beginnings in France; abstract painting took even longer.
The distance from international centres encouraged a long tradition of expatriation, with many fine New Zealand painters spending much of their creative lives overseas.
Despite these difficulties, there have been a remarkable number of outstanding New Zealand painters.