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by Jock Phillips

New Zealand’s spectacular landscapes and the indigenous Māori people were popular subjects for paintings from the first time Europeans first visited the country. The New Zealand art world was slow to accept new styles of painting, leading some artists to move overseas. Abstraction finally made it into New Zealand painting in the mid-20th century, and painting has continued to diversify.


Traditional Māori painting

The painting of images on surfaces such as walls or canvases is a long-established human activity. It began in New Zealand within the first centuries of human settlement, when Māori drew on the rock walls of caves. As large wharenui (meeting houses) began to be built, Māori also painted kōwhaiwhai to decorate their rafters. In the later 19th century some wharenui, for example Rongopai near Gisborne, were decorated with figurative paintings rather than the traditional carvings.

In the later 20th century Māori artists made a major creative contribution by combining Māori traditional patterns and concepts with modern Western art.

Visiting painters

The first Westerners to represent New Zealand scenes were temporary visitors recording the country for European audiences. They included those who accompanied the early explorers:

  • Isaac Gilsemans, the artist on Dutch explorer Abel Tasman’s short visit in 1642
  • Sydney Parkinson, on English explorer James Cook’s first voyage to New Zealand (1769–70), who was hired to do botanical drawing for Joseph Banks but recorded the land and its inhabitants after the official artist for the voyage, Alexander Buchanan, died in Tahiti
  • William Hodges, on Cook’s second voyage (1772–75)
  • John Webber, on Cook’s third voyage (1776–79).

Later there were travellers who set out to document a strange new world across the seas. Of significance were:

  • Augustus Earle, ‘the wandering artist’, who spent nine months in the Bay of Islands in 1827–28
  • George French Angas, who published two books of paintings on the basis of a six-month stay in New Zealand in 1844
  • William Strutt, who arrived in 1855 from Melbourne intending to farm in Taranaki, but left in 1856 having completed some important paintings.

Amateur settler painters

Painting was also a pursuit that many settlers enjoyed, both as relaxation and as a way to document their experiences and travels in days before cameras. For well-bred women it was, like singing, an expected accomplishment; and gentlemen also recorded sights in watercolour sketches. Most early paintings were by amateurs rather than professional painters – people like politician and explorer William Fox, the New Zealand Company surveyor Charles Heaphy, Otago province’s botanical draughtsman John Buchanan, Taranaki school teachers Martha King and John Kinder, and Dunedin lawyer William Mathew Hodgkins.

Painting … and paperhanging

Charles Blomfield’s business card from the 1880s illustrated how hard it was to make a living on just artistic painting. It read: ‘Landscape Artist in Oil. House, Sign, And Decorative Painter … Always On Hand: Paperhangings, In Great Variety. Borders, Scrim, Tacks etc. White Lead, Oils, Colours, Varnishes, and all Painters’ Materials. Oleographs, Chromos, Engravings, Gilt and Stained Mouldings … Picture Frames Made to Order.’

Professional painters

The lack of a wealthy clientele, the distance from larger markets and the small population delayed the emergence of professional painters in New Zealand until the late 19th century. Even then, after the arrival of art schools from the 1880s, many only survived by teaching. This remained true for the first half of the 20th century; only from the 1960s were a few serious professional painters able to survive by selling their paintings to a growing middle-class market.

Subject and style

With few rich people to pay for portraits, and an undeveloped city life, the subject of much New Zealand painting was the landscape. Painters documented the distinctive shapes of the land and promoted the beauty of the country. The one major figurative subject was Māori – partly because Europeans wished to record their features and way of life. Others saw Māori as a picturesque extension of the landscape.

New Zealand painters inherited styles of painting from Europe, and they often followed European masters such as J. M. W. Turner or the impressionists. However, New Zealand’s distance from the old world meant painters were often late in adopting the latest overseas styles. There was considerable cultural lag – impressionism arrived a generation after its beginnings in France; abstract painting took even longer.

The distance from international centres encouraged a long tradition of expatriation, with many fine New Zealand painters spending much of their creative lives overseas.

Despite these difficulties, there have been a remarkable number of outstanding New Zealand painters.

19th-century landscape painting

Topographical painting

One impulse for landscape painting in colonial New Zealand was recording the topography of a new land for others who could not see it. Explorers and surveyors painted as a form of map-making. Isaac Gilsemans, on Abel Tasman’s voyage in the 1640s, and Sydney Parkinson, on Cook’s first voyage in 1769–70, both prepared coastal profiles.

Not fine art

In the 1860s John Buchanan, as draughtsman for James Hector’s Otago geological survey, drew diagrammatic images of mountains which have been highly regarded by later art historians. However, these images were displayed in the educational, not fine arts, section of the 1865 New Zealand Exhibition.

But even apparently topographical paintings had larger purposes and were contained within artistic conventions. They were never unmediated responses to the landscape.


One purpose of paintings during this time was to attract settlers to New Zealand. To promote immigration to New Zealand Company settlements, Edward Jerningham Wakefield’s book Adventure in New Zealand was illustrated with engravings that presented the settlements in an attractive light, with flattish land – like England’s – and prosperous activity. There is a major contrast between the early photographs of muddy town streets and the cultured landscapes seen in paintings. Charles Heaphy, a draughtsman for the New Zealand Company, also pictured New Zealand in a positive light – in his famous watercolour entitled ‘Mt Egmont from the Southward’, Mt Taranaki (Mt Egmont) was a perfectly symmetrical cone.

Later in the century paintings of snowy mountains and romantic mists were used in international exhibitions to attract tourists to ‘beautiful New Zealand’.

The language of painting

Landscape painters of New Zealand worked within an established language or set of conventions. The governing idea was that nature was God’s handiwork. The role of the painter was to reveal that handiwork.

The artist’s gospel

‘A history of landscape art and its study in New Zealand’, a speech given by Otago painter William Mathew Hodgkins in 1880, was the most famous articulation of the artist’s role in colonial New Zealand. Hodgkins said, ‘the mission of the landscape painter is to make us acquainted with the beautiful places on God’s earth, and so render us more grateful to Him who has placed us here by affording us the means of contemplating the presentment of his work’.1

To portray this ideal world painters drew on the ideas of 17th-century French painter Claude Lorraine, using:

  • a high viewpoint revealing a distant horizon
  • dark brown foreground and side (often featuring trees)
  • overlapping planes
  • a golden glow and a distant blue horizon.

This ‘Claudian grammar’ was used even by amateur watercolourists who were primarily interested in topographic representation. Some examples include William Fox in the works he painted while exploring inland Nelson; Auckland school teacher John Kinder, who documented exact features in the landscapes but whose paintings have a Claudian golden glow; and fellow Aucklander Alfred Sharpe, who, though profoundly deaf, spoke loudly through his paint in a Claudian language of dark foregrounds and blue distances.

The sublime

The ‘Claudian grammar’ was intended to evoke emotions, especially a sense of awe in front of the vast emptiness of God’s creation – the emotion of the sublime. The soaring height of mountain peaks and swirling clouds in fierce weather gave atmosphere and a feeling of God’s power.

The first artist to evoke this was William Hodges, on Cook’s second voyage, who was instructed not just to record scientifically but also give the look and feel of a place. His painting ‘Waterfall in Dusky Bay’ suggests vast cascades and noise, and his ‘A view of Cape Stephens with waterspouts’ shows crashing waves, broken cliffs and a drama of light and shade.

Settler painter William Mathew Hodgkins believed the swirling atmospheric paintings of Englishman J. M. W. Turner, with their contrasts of light and dark, were the model for colonial artists.

From the 1880s, as painting became more professional and painters increasingly painted large oils for public display in exhibitions and galleries, the sublime style became more dominant. Painters who worked in this idiom included John Gully from Nelson, whose scenes of the snowy Southern Alps echoed the mountains and glens of Scotland, and Charles Blomfield, an Aucklander, whose grand canvases of the Pink and White Terraces at Lake Tarawera were intended to emphasise the awe-inspiring works of nature and so glorify God.

The picturesque

Another style of painting was the picturesque. This emphasised irregularity, asymmetry and a sense of age and decay. Gnarled trees were a trademark. Frequently in New Zealand Māori figures added a picturesque element to paintings in place of Europe’s rural peasants. Aucklander J. B. C. Hoyte’s deep-blue landscapes often have a Māori spectator in the foreground. In the landscape paintings of Dunedin painter George O’Brien, rough tree roots or jagged rocks provide a foreground to the expected views of sea and sky.

New Zealand landscape painters had New Zealand subjects, but they looked at the landscape through the eyes of European convention.

    • Quoted in Francis Pound, Frames on the land: early landscape painting in New Zealand. Auckland: Collins, 1983, p. 18. Back

Images of Māori

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.

Itinerant artists

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.

War artists

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’.

History painting

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.

    • Augustus Earle, A narrative of a nine months’ residence in New Zealand in 1827. Christchurch: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1909, p. 65. Back

New birth – the 1890s

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.

Girolamo Nerli

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.

Golden pumpkin

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

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

Edward Friström

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.

    • Quoted in Gil Docking, Two hundred years of New Zealand painting. Rev. ed. Auckland: David Bateman, 1990, p. 76. Back
    • Quoted in Gordon H. Brown and Hamish Keith, An introduction to New Zealand painting, 1839–1980. Auckland: David Bateman, 1982, p. 94. Back
    • Evening Post, 22 July 1893, p. 4. Back

Problems of isolation, 1900 to 1940

In the 20 years after 1900 some young artists, inspired by the European professional teachers of the 1890s, frustrated by the provincialism of New Zealand society, and backed by family wealth, left for a more creative painting environment in Europe.

Not very pleasurable

The contrast between an expatriate who remained overseas and one who returned is illustrated by the controversy over the anonymous gift of Frances Hodgkins’s painting ‘The pleasure garden’ to Christchurch’s Robert McDougall Art Gallery in 1949. The returned expatriate, Archibald Nicoll, was the leading opponent of the work, arguing that it was neither worthy of the artist or the gallery, and led the decision to have the gift rejected. However, two years later this decision was overturned.

Frances Hodgkins

The most famous expatriate was Frances Hodgkins, daughter of Dunedin lawyer and painter William Mathew Hodgkins. Her early work, almost wholly watercolour, focused on figures, especially Māori people. She was influenced by her teacher Girolamo Nerli in Dunedin, but in 1901 left for Europe and, although she returned for brief stays in 1903–6 and 1912–13, she spent the rest of her life in England and Europe. There she was influenced by post-impressionist painting and produced works including landscapes and still-life paintings that reflected an interest in abstract form. The Cornwall impressionists were a major influence. She increasingly painted in gouache, which highlighted her clever use of colour. During her lifetime Hodgkins had little impact in New Zealand, although she was subsequently recognised and claimed.

Other expatriates

Other expatriate painters in the early 20th century included:

  • Grace Joel, another Nerli pupil, who painted oils of ordinary people in Paris and London
  • Sydney Thompson, a pupil of Petrus van der Velden who, on going to Europe in 1900, became a follower of French impressionism
  • Raymond McIntyre, also taught by van der Velden, who left for England in 1909 and became known for portraits of women in a style influenced by French post-impressionist Henri Matisse.

Other painters returned home. Some such as Edith Collier painted less and less as they became dispirited by poor community responses. Similarly, Mina Arndt, who had studied in Germany, came back to be largely ignored. Others, including Hodgkins’s close friend D. K. Richmond, or the highly productive Christchurch painter and director of the Christchurch College School of Art, Archibald Nicoll, became strong opponents of modern influences such as cubism and post-impressionism. Another returned expatriate, Margaret Stoddart, was a leading figure in Christchurch art in the interwar years and retained a dynamism in her landscape watercolours.

Harsh, clear light

Christopher Perkins’s suggestion about the value of New Zealand’s harsh, clear light for its painters was picked up by poet and art critic A. R. D. Fairburn, who wrote in 1934: ‘There is no golden mist in the air, no Merlin in our woods, no soft warm colour to breed a school of painters … Hard, clear light reveals the bones, the sheer form of hills, trees, stones and scrub.’1 This idea became a staple of nationalist art critics in the 1960s and 1970s.

La Trobe scheme

Another challenge to provincialism was a scheme to import modernist art educators developed by William La Trobe, superintendent of technical education in the Department of Education. Several of these immigrants made a substantial impact.

  • Robert Field arrived in New Zealand in 1925 to teach at the Dunedin Technical College. His painting featured strong colours and full brushstrokes; and provided an important example for younger artists. For Toss Woollaston they provided ‘wild excitement’ after the ‘long drought of earnest mediocrity’.2 For Colin McCahon, Field offered an example of the painter’s life.
  • Christopher Perkins came to teach at the Wellington Technical School of Art in 1929 and only stayed four years. Expecting Gauguin’s exotic South Pacific, Perkins found a ‘strip of Victorian England’.3 He argued strongly for local subject matter and style, and suggested that the clear harsh light of New Zealand offered an approach for local painters. Drawing on the example of post-impressionists, he exemplified his pleas with strong lines, geometric shapes and landscapes that placed commercial and industrial buildings in the foreground. His ‘Taranaki’ became, after Heaphy’s ‘Mt Egmont’, the second highly influential painting of that mountain.
  • Roland Hipkins was another La Trobe immigrant who advocated ‘New Zealandism’ in painting.

New institutions

The interwar years were also important in some new institutional developments. A journal, Art in New Zealand, began in 1928 and provided a forum for criticism. Dunedin Public Art Gallery moved to a new building in Logan Park in 1927, and new galleries were established – the Robert McDougall in Christchurch (1932) and a new National Art Gallery in Wellington (1936).

    • A. R. D. Fairburn. ‘Some aspects of New Zealand art and letters.’ Art in New Zealand 6, no. 4 (June 1934), p. 215. Back
    • M. T. Woollaston, The far-away hills: a meditation on New Zealand landscape. Auckland: Auckland Gallery Associates, 1962, p. 31. Back
    • Quoted in Gordon H. Brown and Hamish Keith, An introduction to New Zealand painting, 1839–1980. Auckland: David Bateman, 1982, p. 119. Back

Nationalism and landscape painting, 1935 to 1965

No social realism

The economic depression of the 1930s did not spark in New Zealand social realist painting documenting poverty, as in other countries. Only Lois White’s 1937 painting ‘The war-makers’ showed real social engagement. However, the depression did inspire a nationalist belief that New Zealand culture should throw off European models and cultivate the local.

Canterbury regional painting

The home of this nationalist perspective was Christchurch, where the Canterbury School of Arts provided employment for painters and where, from 1927, The Group’s shows allowed experimental work to be exhibited. Some painters, such as Toss Woollaston, Doris Lusk and Rita Angus, exhibited in the annual show while living outside Christchurch. Others in The Group included Louise Henderson, Rata Lovell-Smith, Evelyn Page, Olivia Spencer-Bower, Russell Clark, W. A. Sutton and Colin McCahon.

Small-town landscapes

This nationalist school was not influenced by modernist abstraction, either in its European or New York forms, nor was surrealism a factor. The inspiration was rather post-impressionist landscape painting, especially French artist Paul Cézanne, with an emphasis on hard-edged forms. Following Christopher Perkins’s example, there was an interest in distinctive man-made objects or buildings set against the New Zealand landscape, such as the railway station in Angus’s ‘Cass’, or a Gothic church or road sign in Sutton’s paintings. The subject was almost never urban. It was the landscape of small-town New Zealand.

Three influential painters

Despite such limitations, the Canterbury artists included some impressive painters.

Rita Angus

Educated at the Canterbury School of Arts under Archibald Nicoll, Rita Angus first exhibited with The Group in 1932. She was influenced by Cézanne and her landscapes of Canterbury and, later, Central Otago had strong geometric forms and powerful colours. She usually painted oils in the studio based on open air sketches. Angus also painted portraits, including over 50 self-portraits, which were enriched with symbols and expressive of her own feminist and pacifist convictions.

Toss Woollaston

Although Woollaston briefly attended art school at both Christchurch and Dunedin and was inspired by the 1931 Group show, he was largely self-taught. He was particularly influenced by German cubist Hans Hofmann and his idea of interacting planes. Woollaston had been introduced to his work by artist Flora Scales. Based for long periods in Nelson, Woollaston painted the local hills with flat washes of ochre and reddish-brown often on an unprimed canvas. His work portrayed a landscape of emotion through energetic brushstrokes and a sense of restless movement.

Colin McCahon

McCahon grew up in Dunedin, attended the local art school and then settled in Christchurch in 1948. From boyhood McCahon invested the hills with religious feelings – he later said he saw ‘an angel in this land’. But unlike colonial painters, who aimed to reflect God through nature, McCahon located a crucified Christ in the landscape – a symbol perhaps of his own feelings of cultural isolation. Although Cézanne was an influence, McCahon also looked to early Italian Renaissance painters whose style fashioned the strong lines of his hills. From an early fascination with signwriters and the example of medieval paintings which include biblical text, he used words in his painting to express powerful feelings.

In 1953 McCahon moved to Auckland and the influence of cubism on his art became stronger; this was particularly evident in a series of paintings of kauri trees. In 1958 he visited the United States and saw work by abstract expressionist painters, after which his painting evolved into more abstract work.

Dinkum Kiwis

Nationalist concerns in the 1950s and 1960s were also represented in a small body of figurative work during these years – the gold miners and fishermen of Trevor Moffit, the small-town characters of Bryan Drew, and the six o’clock swill of Garth Tapper.

Other landscape artists

In the North Island in the post-war years several artists, especially Eric Lee-Johnson and the fine wood engraver Mervyn Taylor, explored characteristic New Zealand rural scenes featuring such icons as burnt tree stumps and rustic buildings.

In addition, two painters who had first come to prominence as war artists, Peter McIntyre and Austen Deans, painted images of the New Zealand landscape that achieved a considerable popular following.

Landscape painting lives on

While landscape painting became somewhat unfashionable from the 1960s, several landscape painters subsequently emerged who were praised as inheritors of the ‘harsh light’ school. They included:

  • Don Binney, with his images of birds set against the inlets and hills of northern New Zealand
  • Michael Smither, who painted striking images of Taranaki alongside his powerful images of domestic scenes
  • Robin White, who captured people set against clear-cut images of suburban homes or small-town New Zealand
  • Brent Wong, who painted images of architectural details hovering above Wellington hills
  • Peter Siddell, who brought hard-edged realism to bear on domestic villas in suburban Auckland
  • Grahame Sydney, with his nostalgic images of Central Otago – a landscape and cloudscape which Marilynn Webb also explored in her prints
  • Michael Hight, with his beehive boxes set against striking landscapes.


From the mid-1950s New Zealand artists at last began to confront modernist abstract art.

Institutional change

The environment for serious art began to change. In 1956 Peter Tomory was appointed director of the Auckland Art Gallery. He took painting seriously as a profession and tried to expose Aucklanders to New Zealand art history and international modernism. An exhibition of British abstract art was shown in 1958. Colin McCahon had already moved north and worked at the gallery. Auckland became the new centre of painting.

Tomory’s verdict

When Peter Tomory arrived from Edinburgh as New Zealand’s first true professional art-gallery director, he surveyed the country’s art scene and decided it was a nation of 40 million sheep and 2 million Philistines. He did his best to change that situation.

From the mid-1960s new dealer galleries, such as the Barry Lett Gallery in Auckland and Peter McLeavey in Wellington, encouraged the display and purchase of contemporary New Zealand art. Progressive new public galleries were established, such as the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth in 1970 and the Dowse Art Museum in Lower Hutt in 1971. Art in New Zealand had folded in 1946, but a new serious journal, Art New Zealand, began in 1976. There was now a new market – and a new appreciation – for art as international travel and cheap reproductions educated New Zealanders in modernism.

Pioneers of abstraction

Even before the 1960s there had been isolated painters interested in abstraction. In the 1940s Theo Schoon had discovered Māori rock drawings and began experimenting with the koru (unfurling fern) shape in the 1950s. He showed these to Gordon Walters, who had become interested in the work of Swiss German Paul Klee while overseas. On returning to New Zealand, Walters, under the influence of Dutch abstract artist Piet Mondrian, began experimenting and achieved an artistic breakthrough by straightening the koru shape and making the positive and negative, the figure and the ground, interchangeable. It was not until 1964 that he exhibited his first koru painting; they flowed from his brush for the next two decades to achieve a distinctive New Zealand modernism.

Another pioneer was Milan Mrkusich, born in Dargaville with Dalmatian ancestry, who, without going overseas, developed an interest in the abstract work of Russian Wassily Kandinsky and Mondrian, and by the 1950s was painting rectangular blocks of colour. His work evolved into larger geometric forms using warm colours.

Don’t paint landscapes

Milan Mrkusich was an uncompromising modernist. ‘You want a landscape?’ he said in 1969. ‘Take a drive in the country.’1

Mrkusich influenced Colin McCahon after his move to Auckland, and in 1958 McCahon visited New York and saw the work of abstract expressionists Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. The result was sets of powerful paintings – the gate series, waterfalls, words and then numbers. His paintings grew in size and intensity.

Also in the 1950s two older painters, John Weeks and Louise Henderson, moved, like McCahon, from landscape painting to greater abstraction via cubism.

Three abstract painters returned in the early 1960s after periods overseas.

  • Don Peebles began to paint on unstretched canvases.
  • John Drawbridge’s work ranged from black and white prints to paintings of subtle abstracts in warm colours.
  • By far the most significant was Ralph Hotere, of Māori background, who drew from the example of McCahon a fascination with words and the colour black. He painted many strong works with political references, such as his series in response to the planned aluminium smelter close to his home at Port Chalmers. A sculptor as well as painter, Hotere often used corrugated iron or hardboard in window frames as his painting surfaces.

A new generation

In the 1970s a generation of painters, mainly born in the 1940s and early 1950s, produced a rich output of abstract art, mainly in Auckland. They included:

  • Gretchen Albrecht, who painted bands of colour and hemispheres using acrylic paints
  • Ian Scott, influenced by Gordon Walters and American abstraction, who painted lattice shapes in acrylic before returning later to post-modern figurative work
  • Geoff Thornley, who experimented with squares and delicate grids
  • Stephen Bambury, whose uncompromising interest in formal abstraction aligned him with Milan Mrkusich
  • Max Gimblett, who, although based in New York, continued to exhibit his distinctive quatrefoils in New Zealand.

In the 2000s Sara Hughes produced vivid abstractions exploring geometric shapes, often with a play on optical illusions; while Judy Millar, who was selected for the Venice Biennale in 2009, painted strong expressive works in which she often scratched or wiped the paint off the canvas.


Expressionism and postmodernism

The public acceptance of modernist art and the increase in arts patrons in the last third of the 20th century encouraged the emergence of other styles of painting.

Bullfighter artist

Philip Clairmont once stated: ‘I wanted to be a painter or a bullfighter or nothing else.’ He would cut out photos and pictures of bullfighters and then compare them with painted bullfighters by Spanish painter Francisco Goya. It did not seem to bother him that he was not living in Spain.


Expressionism meant painting that explored and sought to evoke inner desires and feelings. Usually this meant bold surreal colours and strong shapes. In New Zealand the pioneer was Rudolf Gopas, a refugee from Lithuania who arrived in New Zealand in 1949 and who taught at the Canterbury School of Arts (1953–77). His dark, moody paintings made a splash, but his importance was as much in the students he inspired.

  • Philip Clairmont expressed his angst in powerful images of his domestic surroundings, such as fireplaces or sofas. Primary colours and black evoked unease and fear. He also painted revealing self-portraits. Clairmont committed suicide at the age of 34.
  • Tony Fomison was, like Clairmont, an artist-outsider. He painted dark oils, often of moody faces or close-ups of hands, and was influenced by Māori perspectives and by the black-and-brown colour palette of Colin McCahon.
  • Philip Trusttum used thick, brightly coloured paint on hardboard to produce positive, energetic works.

Other expressionist painters who emerged included Pat Hanly, who returned from overseas in 1962 and made a series of hard-edged works in enamel paints using bright Pacific colours (especially ‘Pacific icons’ and ‘Figures in the light’), and Jeffrey Harris, who saw his painting as a form of emotional biography and explored domestic scenes and relationships.

Nigel Brown’s black outlines and strong shapes also have expressionist elements. His colours and use of words clearly bear the influence of Colin McCahon, but the obvious social element in his work goes beyond the subjectivity of expressionism.


Postmodernism emerged in New Zealand painting in part as a reaction against the earnest nationalist landscape tradition and against the cold formalism of abstraction. Postmodernism emphasised self-reflection, and multiple perspectives and forms.

A good example of ‘busting’ the traditional form was Richard Killeen’s ‘cut out’ paintings, a collection of shapes that owners could hang in any order or position they desired. Killeen also at times ‘quoted’ icons of traditional New Zealand art such as the dead tree.

In a similar playful commentary on nationalist art Ian Scott drew on Colin McCahon’s images in his ‘New Zealand painting’ of 1987, while Ruth Watson used jigsaw pieces and children’s games to reflect on New Zealand iconography. John Reynolds continued the McCahon word tradition with huge paintings of New Zealand words drawn from Harry Orsman’s Dictionary of New Zealand English.

Postmodern art often included figurative elements and broke the boundaries of high and popular art. Dick Frizzell, for example, drew on images from commercial branding, which he inserted into formal compositions. In his famous image ‘Mickey to tiki tu meke’ he risked offence by transforming a Hollywood symbol – Mickey Mouse – into a Māori one.

Surrealist paintings

In the 2000s a strong theme was the use of figurative elements to create surreal effects. Bill Hammond developed a distinctive motif of part-bird, part-human figures often set in a comic-book Canterbury landscape. Jenny Dolezel used slightly bizarre puppet-like figures to suggest a world of disturbing dreams. Similarly, Séraphine Pick painted surreal figures against an eerie landscape which evoked the fantasies of the subconscious. Tony de Latour created imaginative works which ranged from bizarre two-dimensional heads to commercial symbols built from alpine shapes. Andrew McLeod painted exquisite objects floating as if in a dream.

Painting of identity

Social movements from the 1960s, especially feminism and the Māori and Pacific people’s cultural revival, have had a profound impact on New Zealand painting.

Women’s art

Feminism gave birth to a self-conscious women’s art movement. The Women’s Gallery was established in Wellington in 1980 and the ‘Mothers’ exhibition, held in 1981, was a significant exhibition of women’s art. There was a rediscovery of earlier painting by women, especially Rita Angus’s ‘Goddess’ paintings and a deliberate attempt to dissolve boundaries between the personal and the public. The painters who gained confidence and some recognition from this movement included several from an earlier generation, such as Jacqueline Fahey, a figurative painter who portrayed the domestic world of modern women, and Mary McIntyre, whose realist paintings have often pictured single figures (frequently herself) set slightly disturbingly against a New Zealand landscape.

Younger feminist painters included:

  • Claudia Pond Eyley who, among other works, painted shields with symbols drawn by women in other cultures
  • expatriate Alexis Hunter, who used photography and film as well as painting to challenge the patriarchy
  • Carole Shepheard, primarily a printmaker, who also used symbols and images of the body in a consciously feminist way
  • Julia Morison, another highly versatile multimedia artist, whose work constantly experimented with new forms, materials and symbols.

Māori painting

A major inspiration for Māori artists to reinterpret their traditions within modernist art was Gordon Tovey, the supervisor of arts and crafts for the Department of Education for 20 years from 1946. He encouraged Māori artists such as Ralph Hotere, Para Matchitt, Cliff Whiting, Selwyn Muru and John Bevan Ford to draw on their culture. Many moved into sculpture and carving. Hotere continued to paint, moving his focus of interest into environmental issues. Ford explored Māori history and traditions, especially in his paintings of cloaks.

What is ‘Māori’ art?

In 1976 Ralph Hotere was quoted as saying, ‘I am Maori by birth and upbringing. As far as my work is concerned this is coincidental’1. Despite this, it might be suggested that Hotere’s extensive use of the Māori language and the colour black in his work shows that his Māori heritage was never far from his work.

From the 1980s the output of modernist Māori painting increased, partly reflecting the impact of the international Te Māori exhibition in establishing the credibility of Māori art and partly as an expression of protest. Women were prominent, including:

  • Robyn Kahukiwa, who painted strong Māori women and explored Māori traditional figures in a style reminiscent of meeting-house carving
  • Emily Karaka, whose exuberant expressionist paintings speak of anger about injustice to Māori
  • Kura Te Waru Rewiri, who used kōwhaiwhai and weaving patterns to produce beautiful abstract designs.

In the 2000s Star Gossage explored her own Māori traditions in images of delicate figures in the landscape.

Among the important contemporary Māori male painters, the most recognised is Shane Cotton of Ngāpuhi, who began as an abstract painter and then discovered his Māori heritage from the 1990s. His work took on the traditional colours of brown, red, white and black and began to confront issues of Māori loss of land and power. His painting became dense with symbolism and made allusions both to kōwhaiwhai and to Gordon Walters’s modernist koru paintings.

Peter Robinson used his discovery of his Māori whakapapa to confront issues of race and identity, often using words and numbers in red, black and white. In the 2000s Darren George painted geometric abstract works drawing on kōwhaiwhai and Māori words.

Pacific painting

The major migration of people from Pacific Islands since the 1960s, and their desire to retain their own heritage, led to Pacific painting which, like Māori work, combined modernist approaches with traditional content. They range from the naïve-style images of Samoan life by 1960s artist Teuane Tibbo, to the tapa-like work of Samoan Fatu Feu’u and Niuean John Pule, and the colourful expressionism of Lily Laita. Michel Tuffery drew on Polynesian motifs for works in many media, including prints, paintings, sculptures and multi-media projections.

    • Art New Zealand 146 (Winter 2013), p. 33. Back

Into the 2000s

Multimedia art

In the 21st century it became hard to separate out painting from other forms of artistic creativity. Virtually all those who painted also made films or took photographs. In his witty portraits of himself Ronnie Van Hout used sculpture, video, painting, photography, embroidery and sound recordings. In that sense, painting was no longer the pre-eminent medium it once was.

Diversity of styles

Those who continued to produce work for hanging on walls inherited and worked within a great range of different styles – abstraction, expressionism and figurative painting, including portraits, still had their following. Landscape was less favoured, except at a popular level, with Karl Maughan’s hyperreal images of gardens the closest avant-garde painters came to that subject.

Postmodern historicism

Perhaps a reflection of this situation was the increasing fascination of painters with the history of their own medium. This could be seen in the works of many.

  • John Reynolds continued Colin McCahon’s tradition of using words in art with his paintings of New Zealand words drawn from Harry Orsman’s Dictionary of New Zealand English.
  • In several series of prints, including ‘Southern myths’ and ‘The Odyssey of Captain Cook’, Marian McGuire combined visual references to early New Zealand art with classical Greek art and mythology.
  • Heather Straka reworked Gottfried Lindauer’s paintings of Māori with modern references.
  • Shane Cotton updated Charles Heaphy’s coastal profiles.
  • Julian Dashper played with his situation of being an international abstract artist in an isolated country, like his predecessors including Milan Mrkusich.

In this constant referencing of earlier work, New Zealand painters accepted that they could look locally as well as overseas for inspiration. They had a long and rich tradition, in which they could locate themselves.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Jock Phillips, 'Painting', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 September 2021)

He kōrero nā Jock Phillips, i tāngia i te 22 Oct 2014