In the 1890s three professional painters with a background of success in European art circles settled in New Zealand – Petrus van der Velden, Girolamo Nerli and James Nairn. None had a long career in New Zealand, but their influence was considerable.
The mad artist
A resident of Ōtira considered Petrus van der Velden quite mad, ‘because at all times when thunder rolled, and wind howled, and rain poured, van der Velden would go into the gorge, whereas at all times when the sun shone from a cloudless sky, he would lie with his back to the grass near the hotel and sleep.’1
Petrus van der Velden
The oldest of the three was Petrus van der Velden, who came to Christchurch in 1890, aged 53. He stayed there for eight years before leaving for Sydney (although he later returned to New Zealand and spent the last nine years before his death in 1913 in Wellington). Van der Velden had been a member of a school of realist painters at The Hague, in the Netherlands, who focused on the lives of ordinary Dutch people. In Christchurch, he was well known for a series of oil paintings of Ōtira Gorge in flood. There were traditional elements in these paintings – they sought to display nature as a work of God (‘Colour is Light – Light is Love – Love is God and when you understand this you are an artist,’2 he wrote), and they explored the contrast of light and dark. But they were highly mobile close-ups, not the static distant views of his predecessors, and they expressed a remarkable energy.
Italian-born Girolamo Nerli also did not spend long in New Zealand – only five years from 1893, following a brief visit in 1889. His paintings had elements of impressionism, with its fluid sketchy brushwork and interest in common-place scenes. His importance to New Zealand art was that through his private academy, and then the Dunedin School of Art and Design, he was an influential teacher who had a significant impact on painters including Grace Joel and Frances Hodgkins.
Pumpkin Cottage drew its name from the fact that James Nairn tied a pumpkin to a stick projecting above its roof, and on the wall he painted ‘Ye Signe of Ye Golden Pumpkin’. After the pumpkin rotted and fell, Nairn painted a pumpkin on the gable.
James Nairn was also an influential teacher. A year after his arrival in Wellington in 1890 he became an instructor at the local school of design, and soon caused some controversy by asking his pupils to sketch nudes in his life class. But his strongest impact came in landscape painting. In his native Scotland Nairn had been part of the ‘Glasgow boys’, a school of painters influenced by French impressionism who painted outdoors. In Wellington Nairn established the Wellington Art Club, in reaction against the more conservative academy. The club rented Pumpkin Cottage at Silverstream, where they could practise painting in the open air.
Although Nairn denied that he was an ‘impressionist’, elements of his painting resembled that school – his outdoor sketching, the visible brushwork, the portrayal of light, the bright green and mauve colours and the focus on ordinary scenes in place of sublime mountainscapes. Nairn’s style was sufficiently revolutionary to cause the Evening Post newspaper to dismiss the club’s work as ‘creations of a disordered imagination’.3
In 1903 another European professional painter set up in Auckland. Clas (known as Edward) Friström was a Swede who had spent time in Australia and been influenced by the Australian ‘Heidelberg School’. He eventually obtained a position at Elam School of Fine Arts in Auckland, but resigned in a dispute in 1915, much to the consternation of his pupils. Friström brought modernist influences to his painting – he painted ordinary subjects outdoors in a style characterised by bright colours and rough, visible brushwork.