Study of a Sudanese, 1903
Watercolour, 35.5 x 25.5 cm
Signed FH & dated '03 lower right
To Dorothy Richmond, 3 December 1902. Hotel Bristol, Tangier.
Salaams from Morocco! We’ve arrived…………. Heavens! how beautiful it is! Why aren’t you here you foolish and misguided woman… I am never going back to New Zealand – I am going to turn Moslem – I am going to wear a haik – I am going to lie on a divan for the rest of my days with a handmaiden called Fatima to wait on me….
In late 1902 Frances Hodgkins travelled to Morocco, accompanied by her friend Mrs Ashington, whom she had met at a summer sketching school in Caudebec. Her mentor Norman Garstin and two artists she had particularly admired, Frank Brangwyn and Arthur Melville, had made this trip before her. The trip can be seen as a continuation of her search for exotic subject matter, and in the old Moorish walled town of Tangier she was able to respond to the effects of sunlight, captured en plein air. In choosing to go to North Africa Hodgkins was following a path well-worn by English and French artists – including Delacroix, in 1832 – drawn by a romantic hankering for the exotic and the vogue for Orientalism.
In a letter to Dorothy Richmond, Hodgkins described the arrival at the port of Tangier:
Directly the boat stopped – some way from the landing pier – a thousand or so Moors hurled themselves on deck & began fighting violently over our baggage – some of them such magnificent looking men, bronze giants, others wizened up, wicked looking little brigands and a few coal black Nubians with plunging eyes.
In addition to the architecture and the market places of the city, Hodgkins was attracted by the dark skin and flowing garments of the local people. She told Dorothy Richmond of one of her models, a ‘ducky little Arab girl who we captured & painted in an aloe grove’, and who agreed to return the next day.
The subject of this portrait is sometimes said to be the artist's young guide in Morocco, Absolom. However, he bears little resemblance to the boy identified as Absolom in a photograph from this trip, and the title identifies him as an immigrant from north-eastern Africa, rather than the local boy Absolom is said by Hodgkins' biographers to have been.
Absolom, however, did play a significant role in Hodgkins' visit to Morocco. She wrote to Richmond stating that ‘Absolom the trustworthy’ and was their main source of Tangier gossip; ‘he knows everything, and what he doesn’t know he guesses at.' His knowledge of Tangier proved invaluable, while he also dispersed crowds of curious onlookers when Hodgkins and her companion painted in the market place, and shielded them from the Moroccan sun with an umbrella. In her portrait, strong sunlight falls directly on the faithful Absolom, whose eyes are downcast. Bold strokes of fluid colour flesh out the background, while the details of his garments are merely hinted at under the glare of the sun, all serving to draw attention to the face and the sitter’s dark brown skin.
On the boat to Tangier, Hodgkins encountered wealthy friends from Dunedin, David and Marie Theomin. Patrons of the arts and admirers of Hodgkins’ work, they commissioned a watercolour, Orange Sellers, Tangier (collection of Theomin Gallery, Olveston, Dunedin). In this market place scene the intensity of the sunlight has reduced a foreground display of fruit and vegetables to mere blobs of colour, in contrast to the shimmering whiteness which distinguish other areas of the composition. Here Hodgkins sought a general effect, the unique atmosphere of a street market, whereas Study of a Sudanese captured the character of an individual.
Written by Richard Wolfe
Research by Jonathan Gooderham
Wellington, N.Z. McGregor Wright Art Gallery. February 1904 (No.18)
Auckland, N.Z. Jonathan Grant Gallery, Frances Hodgkins: A Singular Artist. July 2016
Ascent. Frances Hodgkins, Commemorative Issue (Caxton Press with QE II Arts Council, Christchurch 1969) p. 14
Roger Collins and Iain Buchanan, Frances Hodgkins on Display 1890 – 1950 (Hocken Library 2000) p. 35
E.H McCormick, Portrait of Frances Hodgkins (Auckland University Press 1981) p. 51
I Buchanan, E Eastmond and M Dunn, Frances Hodgkins: Paintings and Drawings (Auckland University Press 2001) p. 18
Collection: Mrs R D Todd
Private Collection, Auckland
E.H. McCormick, Portrait of Frances Hodgkins (Auckland 1981) p. 47
Frances Hodgkins 1869 – 1947, Queen Elizabeth Arts Council of New Zealand (Auckland 1969) No. 6
E.H. McCormick, Works of Frances Hodgkins in New Zealand (Auckland 1954) plate 15
E. H. McCormick, The Path to Impressionism (Art New Zealand #16, Auckland 1980) p. 31