Maori Girl in Blue, 1899
Watercolour, 29 x 21 cm
Signed FH top right & dated '99
To Rachel Hodgkins, 18 September 1899. Moeraki.
The Maoris have come from all parts and I have renewed acquaintance with a lot of old models, they are …. hugely interesting from an artistic point of view…. The weather still holds good, yesterday it blew a good deal but it is gloriously fine today and we are going to take our lunch over to the Kaik [Maori settlement near Moeraki] and sketch Maoris.
Images of Maori, painted in the period 1896-1900, occupy a prominent position in Hodgkins’s oeuvre. The original New Zealander had long held a fascination for European artists, the best known and most prolific of whom was probably Bohemian Gottfried Lindauer (1839-1926). In 1893 Hodgkins began lessons with visiting Italian artist Girolamo Pieri Nerli, and it is highly likely she knew of his recent paintings of Pacific subjects, in Samoa and Fiji, while he also produced some based on the Australian Aboriginal.
Hodgkins’ paintings of Maori are almost entirely restricted to portrait studies of women and children. She discovered that there was a market for such subjects, while they were also well received by critics. During the closing years of the nineteenth century she travelled with painting companions to various locations, including Moeraki on the east coast of North Otago, where she was able to engage and work with Maori models. The above letter to her mother described such a visit to Moeraki which coincided with the tangi for a chief.
Three years later, and now in France, Hodgkins recalled the appeal of painting Maori subjects:
I must say the idea of town life when I return does not attract me – I am more than ever set on painting Maoris & the thought that I am going back to a whole island full of them gives me infinite comfort – they are still to me so much more beautiful than anything I have seen on this side of the world…..
Maori Girl in Blue is typical of Hodgkins’ approach, depicting head and shoulders only, which ‘float’ against the paper. It was executed quickly, using the wet-on-wet technique by which new layers of watercolour pigment were applied over those which have not yet dried, a method ideal for outdoor and on-the-spot painting and which was popular with the Impressionists. Similar to the earlier Maori Girl, 1896 (collection of the Dunedin Public Art Gallery) the subject of Maori Girl in Blue evokes a childlike innocence, smiling, and with large eyes and pronounced lips. This sentimental appeal has been likened to that which was popular in late Victorian paintings of children, as by John Everett Millais and Edwin Landseer.
While Hodgkins was aware of the social circumstances of her Maori subjects, her interest was purely artistic. Thus, by detaching her sitters - attractive young Maori women in European dress - from any background or social context she was able to focus instead on informality and liveliness. And because they were free of ethnic references, Hodgkins’ works stand apart from those of three other artists who were painting Maori at this time: Charles Frederick Goldie, Gottfried Lindauer and Louis John Steele.
Written by Richard Wolfe
Research by Jonathan Gooderham
Auckland, N.Z. Jonathan Grant Gallery, Frances Hodgkins: A Singular Artist. July 2016.
E. H. McCormick, Works of Frances Hodgkins in New Zealand (Auckland 1954) p. 149, No.103
Collection. William Matthew Hodgkins
Gifted by W. M. Hodgkins to Mrs E. C. Reynolds
Mrs E. E. McMillan M.P., Dunedin
Private Collection, Dunedin (purchased at E. E. McMillan estate auction 1987)
E. H. McCormick, Works of Frances Hodgkins in New Zealand (Auckland 1954) plate 11a