Painters of discovery
Although there was little portrait or figurative painting in colonial New Zealand, the exception was paintings of Māori people. This was partly because, like the country’s landscape, the people were previously unknown to the European world and there was a desire to record their appearance.
Artists on the exploring voyages – Isaac Gilsemans, Sydney Parkinson and William Hodges – all painted Māori figures. They had some success recording Māori clothing, hair arrangements and moko (facial tattoos), but did not capture Polynesian facial features accurately. They portrayed Māori faces as European types.
Two painters, Augustus Earle and G. F. Angas, who each spent less than a year in New Zealand – Earle in 1827–28 and Angas in 1844 – painted Māori subjects sympathetically, but always in traditional clothing. Earle considered that Māori had classical physiques. In his famous painting of his meeting with Ngāpuhi leader Hongi Hika, Earle presented the scene as if it was from a legendary epic by ancient Greek poet Homer.
Painting with words
In his memoir Augustus Earle described meeting Hongi: ‘In a beautiful bay, surrounded by high rocks and over-hanging trees; the chiefs sat in mute contemplation, their arms piled up in regular order on the beach … To me it almost seemed to realize some of the passages of Homer, where he describes the wanderer Ulysses and his gallant band of warriors.’1
Partly to challenge the image of Māori as dangerous cannibals, Angas produced a book, The New Zealanders illustrated, in which Māori were given sentimental treatment. Their cloaks were realistic, but their faces were represented as cute, friendly and exotic.
Artist John Gilfillan spent six years in New Zealand before his family were killed by a group of Māori in 1847. Despite his tragedy, he depicted Māori life in his work. His pencil drawings are informal and informative, but his larger oils are picturesque and follow the conventions of landscape painting.
Soldiers painted scenes from the New Zealand wars. Some, such as the sketches of Horatio Robley, were detailed matter-of-fact records. Others, such as the melodramatic watercolours of Gustavus von Tempsky, presented Māori as resourceful, dashing warriors.
Images of the ‘dying race’
After the wars, Pākehā artists set out to record the features of what many believed to be a dying race, generally in sentimental tones. Gottfried Lindauer reached New Zealand in 1874 from Bohemia and became known for his portraits of Māori, many paid for by Auckland businessman Henry Partridge. While his style was realistic, the portraits were usually based on photographs with details tidied up. Their tone tended towards nostalgic and the clothing depicted was normally traditional, not contemporary. Lindauer also painted scenes of Māori life modelled on French paintings of European peasants.
Lindauer’s work became much admired by both Māori and Pākehā. This was also true of his successor Charles Goldie. Trained in French academic art in Paris in the 1890s and influenced by old masters such as Rembrandt, Goldie was a staunch opponent of modernist painting. His chosen subject was the old-time Māori – the ‘noble relics of a noble race’, as he titled one of his paintings. His portraits were usually head-and-shoulders images of elderly Māori, their eyes downcast in melancholy.
The titles says it all
The titles Charles Goldie chose for his paintings reflect the emotional effect he was aiming to create in the viewer. They include: ‘Memories’, ‘One of the old school’, ‘The last of the chivalrous days’, ‘Weary with years’, ‘A noble relic of a noble race’ and ‘The passing of the old-time Maori’.
European painting had a tradition of representing significant historical events. There were a few early efforts to depict Māori topics. They include Charles Meryon’s 1848 painting of French explorer Marion du Fresne’s assassination, where the background imagery was classical rather than Māori.
At the turn of the 20th century, as Pākehā New Zealanders became interested in Māori mythology and history, there were more such works – by Walter and Frank Wright, Kennett Watkins and Louis Steele. Steele worked with Goldie on ‘The arrival of the Maoris in New Zealand’ (1898). This was based on Théodore Géricault’s ‘The raft of the Medusa’, which Goldie had copied in the Louvre in Paris the year before.