Frances Mary Hodgkins was born at Dunedin, New Zealand, on 28 April 1869, the third child and second daughter of William Mathew Hodgkins and his Australian wife, Rachel Owen Parker. At that time Dunedin, where Frances Hodgkins lived until she was almost 32, was the most prosperous and populous city in New Zealand and supported a vigorous semi-professional artistic life. The country's first public art school was founded there in 1870. William Mathew Hodgkins was at the centre of Dunedin's artistic activities. He was one of the founders of the Otago Society of Artists (later the Otago Art Society) in 1875 and in 1884 initiated the development of the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. By profession a lawyer, he was by nature and inclination an artist: a lifelong practitioner of watercolour painting in the tradition of Turner. Both Frances and her elder sister, Isabel, inherited their father's talents and grew up in a household where a dedicated, almost professional attitude to painting and exhibiting was a normal part of family life. To this environment was added the wider stimulus of colonial life, which altered the patterns of Victorian society and opened up for middle-class women career opportunities in the arts as teachers and practitioners.
Unlike their four brothers, Frances and Isabel Hodgkins were educated at private schools, finishing at Braemar House which offered a wide range of academic subjects as well as music and painting. Frances's talent was initially overshadowed by the accomplishments of her sister, who joined their father on sketching expeditions, received tuition from him and became a successful painter of landscape and still life, earning enough in 1888 to finance a long holiday in Australia. Demonstrating from the first the independence that is so marked a feature of her life and work, Frances Hodgkins painted only a handful of landscapes in New Zealand, and these are notable for their rejection of the poetic Turneresque atmosphere known at first hand by her father and accepted unquestioningly by her sister. Her earliest known works, dating from about 1886, are charcoal sketches of relations, and the human figure remained the focus of her interest for many years. In 1890 she began exhibiting at art societies in Christchurch and Dunedin. 'Girl feeding poultry' (1890) and 'Portrait of Ethel McLaren' (1893) are typical titles of this early period. Her taste formed by Victorian pictorial conventions with their emphasis on anecdote and sentiment, Hodgkins was recording the people and activities in the semi-rural setting of Cranmore Lodge, the family home from 1889 to 1897.
The decade between 1890 and 1901 when Frances Hodgkins left Dunedin to study in Europe was one of increasing commitment and skill. Her interest in the human figure and face was refined and reinforced by lessons from the Italian artist G. P. Nerli, who began teaching soon after his arrival in Dunedin in 1893. Hodgkins had been aware of Nerli's work from the New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition held in Dunedin in 1889–90. Nerli exemplified an itinerant kind of professionalism and imparted a fluid impressionist watercolour technique not too dissimilar to that practised by Frances's father. The benefit of Nerli's tuition can be seen in 'The girl with flaxen hair' (1893), a sensitive study of young womanhood, which is probably the best-known work of this period.
Nerli's influence may also have contributed to Hodgkins's interest in the Māori, which resulted in a large number of paintings of Māori women, especially during 1899 and 1900. Many of these pictures succumb to the sentimentality which often marked Victorian pictorial interest in exotic subject matter; but some, such as 'Head of a Māori girl' (c. 1900) and 'Māori woman's head' (1913), are dignified images.
In 1895 Frances Hodgkins won the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts' prize for painting from life for 'Head of an old woman', a Rembrandtesque work that owes something to the Dutch artist Petrus van der Velden who had arrived in New Zealand in 1890. That year also saw the arrival of the Scottish impressionist James Nairn, whose work Hodgkins knew.
These outside influences coincided with the marriage of Isabel Hodgkins in 1893 and her departure from Dunedin to live in Wellington with her lawyer husband, W. H. Field. As Isabel Field she continued to paint, but her responsibilities as wife and mother left no time for serious study and her work did not develop. The example of her sister, like that of her father, is of abiding importance in the career of Frances Hodgkins.
The Hodgkins family fortunes had declined in the 1880s, and during the 1890s Frances prepared to earn her own living. In 1895–96 she attended the Dunedin School of Art and Design, partly to impose upon herself the discipline of regular study but mainly to qualify as a teacher. She gained first-class passes in both the elementary and advanced stages of the British-based South Kensington examinations, and in 1896 started private art classes. A witty, energetic, outspoken woman, Hodgkins was an excellent teacher.
Her father's death early in 1898 and a further reduction in the family circumstances strengthened her ambition. Throughout 1899 and 1900, with the encouragement of her mother with whom she was living, she worked to raise money to go to England to study. As well as preparing for exhibitions and teaching, she did black-and-white illustrations for newspapers and magazines. When she left New Zealand in February 1901 she was following the example of many of her contemporaries, notably Dorothy Richmond, A. H. O'Keeffe, Margaret Stoddart and Grace Joel.
On her arrival in England Frances Hodgkins enrolled at the London polytechnic where her drawing teacher was Borough Johnson. She admired and benefited from his pencil work, but after two months could look critically at his painting and find it 'very correct & academical'. This perhaps typically colonial mixture of humility and confidence enabled her throughout her life to adapt new ideas to her own purposes; it was an attitude already exemplified in her response to Nerli. In July 1901 she joined Dorothy Richmond, daughter of the New Zealand painter J. C. Richmond, at a summer sketching class in Normandy run by Norman Garstin, one of the exhibitors at the 1889–90 New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition. He immediately acknowledged her as a fellow artist by refusing to accept fees, and welcomed her as a friend on later sketching excursions in France, Belgium and the Netherlands in 1902 and 1903. He was Hodgkins's first contact with the artists' colonies in Cornwall at Newlyn and St Ives. Frances Hodgkins formed a close friendship with Dorothy Richmond and the two women travelled and painted together through the autumn and winter in the south of France and northern Italy, exhibiting their work in October 1902 at a Bayswater gallery run by the New Zealander John Baillie. Hodgkins was also invited by another woman artist to share an exhibition at the Doré Gallery. Dorothy Richmond was the first of many beloved friends whose faith in her talent, backed up by financial and practical help, sustained Frances Hodgkins.
Hodgkins spent the winter of 1902 in Morocco, and 'Fatima', a large watercolour, was hung 'on the Line' at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1903 – the first time a New Zealander had achieved this distinction. Although Hodgkins was aware of the conservatism of the Royal Academy, its prestige remained and she was delighted at her success. She was not accepted, however, by the impressionist-oriented New English Art Club which included painters she admired such as Stanhope Forbes and Philip Wilson Steer.
Frances Hodgkins and Dorothy Richmond returned to New Zealand at the end of 1903. Throughout her three-year absence Hodgkins had regularly sent work for exhibition in New Zealand and sales had supplemented her savings. She had sought out in Europe the acceptably picturesque themes: market places, street scenes and local people. By the end of her stay the illustrative element was taking second place to concentration on colour and light. She brought work back to exhibit and left some behind with an agent in London. In her absence her work was again accepted by the Royal Academy in 1904 and 1905.
In 1904 Hodgkins established a teaching studio in Bowen Street, Wellington, where she had gone to live with her mother, and tried to settle down to the career her European studies had been intended for. Sometime that year she agreed to marry T. W. B. Wilby, an English writer whom she had met on the journey out from England. Early in 1905 the engagement was broken off and in June Frances Hodgkins was painting with Dorothy Richmond in Rotorua, returning to her earlier interest in the Māori. A few sentences in letters to her mother indicate that she had suffered during her relationship with Wilby, but nothing more is known about it. Hodgkins had many male friends thereafter but this was the only time she seriously considered marriage. She returned to England by herself in February 1906 and by April was in Venice.
For the next seven years Hodgkins lived and worked in Europe, with short stays in Britain in 1907 and 1908. In 1907 she held her first solo exhibition in London at Paterson's Gallery. She resumed her friendship with Norman Garstin and his circle, which included the artist Moffat Lindner and several single women with a serious interest in painting who took the place of Dorothy Richmond in her life.
In 1907 she held a summer sketching class in Dordrecht and spent over a year at various sketching grounds in the Netherlands. In 1908 she shared with the Australian artist Thea Proctor first prize in the Australian section of women's art at the Franco-British Exhibition. A crucial decision took her to Paris at the end of 1908, and the city became her base for the next four years. Although she disliked the turmoil of big cities she was challenged by the intellectual life of Paris. She visited the galleries where contemporary painters such as Picasso exhibited, and kept an open mind about the more advanced ideas encountered. Impressionism and post-impressionism were the immediate influences on her own work.
Until this time all her work had been in watercolour, but in 1908–9 she became for a while a student of oil-painting in the Parisian studio of Pierre Marcel-Béronneau. She continued to work principally in watercolour, however, showing at the Salon in Paris in 1909 and in 1910 with the Société internationale d'aquarellistes. In 1910 she held watercolour classes at the Académie Colarossi – the first woman to be appointed to the staff of this well-established school. The following year she started her own successful School for Water Colour in Paris.
In 1910 Frances Hodgkins was still writing to her mother of returning to New Zealand once she had found herself 'permanently & definitely in an established niche in the Art world.' 'I wish', she continued, 'you were as terribly ambitious for me as I am for myself.…I feel that Fathers heritage to me should work out its true fulfillment.' By the end of 1911 she was clear: 'its on this side of the world that my work & future career lie.'
From November 1912 to October 1913 Frances Hodgkins was once again in the antipodes, this time as a visitor: a successful painter dividing her time between exhibitions (in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Dunedin and Wellington), family and friends. In Australia her work seemed the ultimate in modernity and created a sensation. It was praised by the critics and bought by private and public collectors. The response from New Zealanders was less enthusiastic, but both Wellington and Dunedin acquired watercolours for the permanent city collections. While in New Zealand she spent a short time painting Māori in Rotorua: 'I find them as facinating [sic] as ever & if I lived in N.Z. I should settle alongside this sympathetic Lake – I love it – The Māori has a strong sense of race & ancestry about him very interesting to feel & in this classic spot, Mokoia & the Lake as a background it is quite easy to lose ones heart to him.'
Hodgkins went straight to Italy for the winter of 1913–14. Unfortunately the painting kit and all the work done during that season were lost as she travelled to France. She was running a summer sketching class in northern France when the outbreak of the First World War severed her connection with Europe. She spent the war years based in St Ives with excursions to sketching grounds elsewhere in England. In Cornwall the artists Cedric Morris and Arthur Lett Haines became her friends, the first of a growing number of young English artists attracted by her intellect, dedication, and above all her work. Her artist friends were ultimately to include Ben and Winifred Nicholson, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Graham Sutherland and John and Myfanwy Piper.
Between 1908 and about 1928, her subject matter changed only slightly; she continued to paint people, especially women and children, and street and harbour scenes. Landscape in the broader sense was the subject of a sequence of black-and-white drawings of the south of France (1920–21). But her pictorial language was transformed as she assimilated modernist ideas. Colour remained all-important: with her muted subtle harmonies Hodgkins became one of the most remarkable colourists of her time. Her work became more abstract, with simplified forms and surfaces enriched with patterning. The increasingly expressive use of all kinds of lines pointed ahead to the characteristic calligraphic markings of later paintings.
At the end of the 1920s new subject matter appeared in an innovative combination of still life and landscape, integrating foreground and background, indoors and outdoors into an imaginary landscape that had suggestions of the dream world or the fresh vision of a child. From the 1930s there are fewer paintings of people, the human presence being suggested by the houses, fences, tables and domestic animals of her visionary landscapes. Curiously, this represents a return to themes in early works she had painted in New Zealand like 'Tank and ducks' (1892).
Hodgkins's earliest known oil-painting is 'Loveday and Ann: two women with a basket of flowers' (1915). 'The Edwardians' (c. 1918), 'Double portrait' (c. 1922), 'Spanish shrine' (c. 1933), 'Self portrait: still life' (1941) and 'The courtyard in wartime' (1944) are important oil-paintings in her oeuvre. Sometime in the 1930s she began to use gouache, which became a favoured medium, enabling her to combine the opacity of oil paint with the fluidity of watercolour. The gouaches painted from the late 1930s onwards are among her best work. Her drawings, especially those in pencil, are also important.
Frances Hodgkins's life as an expatriate is well documented in her letters to her mother. After her mother's death in April 1926 she continued to write, although less frequently, to her elder brother and sister. Her family helped her with gifts and loans of money and arranged for the pictures she sent back to New Zealand to be framed and exhibited. Her work was shown intermittently at art societies in New Zealand until 1929. Two of her gouaches were included in the British section of the Centennial Exhibition of International and New Zealand Art held at the National Art Gallery, Wellington, in 1939–40. She was also represented in the 1940 National Centennial Exhibition of New Zealand Art, although only by three watercolours painted before 1920.
Frances Hodgkins was constantly on the move. Occasionally, when she was entertained by wealthy friends, she was able to enjoy the comforts of a home and indulge her taste for elegance and refinement. Then she would resume her own austere life, owning nothing, sustained by a fierce joy at her independence and sense of purpose.
In 1920 she resumed her contact with France, wintering in cheap lodgings in the south, spending the summer with her sketching class in Brittany, and returning to England at the end of 1921. She spent the whole of 1924 in France, showing at the Salon d'Automne. In spite of this and other successes she sold very little work. In 1925 her incessant financial worries were temporarily relieved by well-paid employment as a designer with the Calico Printers' Association in Manchester. The writer Geoffrey Gorer, who was to become a friend and patron, first met Hodgkins about this time at a Bloomsbury party. After her death he recalled the occasion: 'she had on an odd and large assortment of polychrome garments – an Italian striped scarf round her neck, a red blouse, and a blue patterned jersey, a green skirt, red shoes; all these garments made her rather a bundle, but the seemingly garish colours were oddly well assorted; she had made herself a decoration, almost a still life, in her own style.…her face was ageless…and her spirit, her conversation were so young that it seemed impossible that she was almost as near to our grandparents as to our parents.'
In 1927 a work shown with the New English Art Club attracted the attention of the London dealer Arthur Howell who offered her a contract at the beginning of 1930. This led in 1931 to her association with the well-established Lefevre and Leicester galleries, a professional relationship that was to last until the end of her life. In 1929 she was elected to the progressive Seven and Five Society, and in 1933 was invited by Paul Nash to join Unit One. After accepting the invitation Hodgkins changed her mind and withdrew before the first exhibition. She resigned from the Seven and Five the following year, possibly because she disagreed with the new policy of showing only non-figurative work. She wintered in Ibiza in 1932–33 and in Spain in 1935–36, producing memorable landscapes whose sharp contrasts and relatively high-key colouring showed how she modulated her paintings in response to local conditions. Although she never abandoned her starting point in the physical world some of her paintings of the 1940s came close to abstract expressionism.
The Second World War imposed almost unbearable hardship on Frances Hodgkins. She was now in her 70s and less resilient physically and emotionally. The food shortages and the nervous strain caused by the bombing exacerbated her main health problem – her 'feeble interior' as she once wrote. In 1941 after many years of intermittent pain she had major surgery for duodenal ulceration. Isolated from the Continent, she missed the stimulation of travel as well as relief from the cold English winters. Yet until 1946 she continued to paint with undiminished intensity, finding her subject matter in Dorset, in and around the village of Corfe Castle, where she had a studio, or at Bradford-on-Tone in Somerset where Geoffrey Gorer's cottage was made available to her. In 1940 she was chosen to represent Britain in the 22nd Venice Biennale. She was granted a civil list pension in 1942 in recognition of her services to art. In November 1946, to enthusiastic critical acclaim, the Lefevre Gallery held a retrospective exhibition of 64 paintings and 17 drawings ranging from 1902 to 1946. Hodgkins was able to travel to London for this tribute to her life's work.
On 22 March 1947, a few weeks before her 78th birthday, Frances Hodgkins was admitted to Herrison House, a psychiatric hospital near Dorchester in Dorset, suffering from what proved to be a terminal illness. She died there a little under two months later, on 13 May 1947, and was cremated at Weymouth on 17 May. Just after her death a note came from the prime minister asking if he might submit her name in the birthday honours of the British Empire as a CBE. Her ashes were returned to New Zealand and placed in the Field–Hodgkins family plot in the Waikanae cemetery near Wellington.
In 1969 the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council of New Zealand organised a Frances Hodgkins centenary exhibition; it was the first time a comprehensive selection of her work had been seen in New Zealand. Since then her reputation has continued to grow. Like other expatriates, Hodgkins left New Zealand to develop a talent that could find no fulfilment in a colonial setting. During her lifetime she had little direct influence on the development of painting within New Zealand because she played no part in the local task of establishing a national identity in the arts. Shortly after her death, the controversy surrounding the gift of her painting 'Pleasure garden' (c. 1933) to the Christchurch City Council drew attention to the parochialism and conservatism of public taste and provided a rallying point for New Zealand's modernist painters and their sympathisers. As an example of her importance to individual New Zealand artists one may cite Colin McCahon, who wrote of his childhood in the 1920s: 'There was one painting in the [Dunedin Public Art] Gallery I loved above all else, Frances Hodgkins "Summer". It sang from the wall…strong and kind and lovely.' A few years later, McCahon wrote, he left high school with 'a profound loathing for several of the masters and for their utter failure…to communicate anything as important as…"Summer".'
Frances Hodgkins was the outstanding artist of her generation, with a professional life that spanned 56 years and earned her a secure place among the English avant-garde of the 1930s and 1940s: the first New Zealand-born artist to achieve such stature. Her role in the transmission of ideas from Paris to London has yet to be fully documented. She was also one of the women artists who, by their example of singleminded dedication to career, challenged the category 'lady artist' with all its connotations of curtailed achievement. In August 1940 she wrote to her brother: 'My aspect of the family talent, or curse? has taken the form of a deep intellectual experience a force which has given me no rest or peace but infinite joy & sometimes even rapture.'