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Kiwi magpie

by Penelope Grist, 3 May 2018

The Window Seat, 1907 by Frances Hodgkins
The Window Seat, 1907 by Frances Hodgkins

In February this year I had the pleasure of seeing the exhibition, Frances Hodgkins: People, at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery Te Pūkenga Whakaata, in Wellington. Hodgkins is one of New Zealand’s most celebrated painters, with her late still life and landscape paintings underpinning her eminent status in the art history of that country, as well as in Britain. Curated by Pamela Gerrish Nunn, an independent art historian specialising in the work of women artists, the exhibition posited that portraiture is critical to understanding Hodgkins’ life and work. It was a bold and elegant argument; to single out portraiture from an artist’s oeuvre asserts both the existence of an untold story and the authority to tell it. The complexity of Hodgkins’ artistic practice and personality left a deep impression on me, as the intense nature of her personal history materialised from Gerrish Nunn’s deceptively simple chronological arrangement of the exhibition’s 52 portraits.

Loans for the exhibition came primarily from public and private collections in New Zealand’s North Island, and Gerrish Nunn bucked expectations by eschewing some of the works most familiar to New Zealanders. For the curator, the NZPG’s readiness to embrace pieces that would traditionally be classed as figurative painting or character studies signals the young institution’s maturity. ‘I don’t think a portrait gallery can remain content with just that straightforward, literal, classic notion of portraiture’, she told me. ‘It has to reach out and keep testing boundaries.’

For her part, NZPG Director Jaenine Parkinson was forthright about the significance of the exhibition for the institution: ‘Hodgkins is one of New Zealand’s most prominent historic artists, and we believe her work being shown here indicates that the NZPG is on equal standing with the best cultural institutions of this country’s national and public life.’ According to Parkinson, local visitors engaged warmly with the unfamiliar story of a familiar, national artist-hero, and international visitors were pleased to see in the works ‘a vivid face of New Zealand’. From my perspective, the face on show was that of a surprising, complicated and determined artist made visible through the people she painted.

Born into middle-class comfort in Dunedin, New Zealand in 1869, Hodgkins’ lawyer father William was a founder of the Otago Society of Artists and a well-regarded watercolourist. As Linda Gill notes in Hodgkins’ Dictionary of New Zealand Biography entry, ‘painting and exhibiting was a normal part of family life’. In the 1890s, Hodgkins attended the Dunedin School of Art and Design; her sitters, then and throughout her career, were often friends. Hodgkins’ watercolours of this period were skillful, lyrically beautiful and often romanticised images.

Teaching, newspaper illustration, and portrait commissions allowed Hodgkins to save up for a ticket to Europe. In 1901, aged 31, she sailed for England, returning to New Zealand only twice, and only for brief stays.‘In New Zealand’, Gerrish Nunn explained, ‘a lot of people think they know everything about Hodgkins through her letters.’ Linda Gill’s edited volume of the artist’s letters shows her to have been a witty, self-aware and voluminous correspondent. However, these seemingly forthright missives were essentially long-distance ‘performances’ for the family who simultaneously supported Hodgkins, while fervently wanting her to return home. However dramatised, the letters are those of a tenacious, committed artist: In 1895, before she left New Zealand, she wrote to her sister Isabel: ‘I have only one prominent idea and that is that nothing will interfere between me and my work’. Then, to her mother in 1907: ‘I feel pulled to pieces between you and my painting’, and in 1921, ‘I will make New Zealand proud of me’. As Gerrish Nunn pithily observed in a 1997 article, Hodgkins was ‘as content to be a woman artist as she was determined not to be a lady painter’. The Hodgkins mythology in New Zealand seems to have mistaken this artistic commitment for a choice to live a solitary existence – an impression that the exhibition roundly dispelled.

Having arrived in London, Hodgkins travelled and painted watercolours continuously in Europe and as far as Morocco over the next few years, sending work to London and home to New Zealand. In the Royal Academy of Art’s 1903 exhibition, Hodgkins became the first New Zealander to have work hung ‘on the line’ (at eye level). The work selected, Fatima, was a watercolour portrait of a Moroccan girl, a fantasy of ‘the other’, not unlike Hodgkins’ earlier watercolours of Māori subjects. The Academy also selected her work in 1904 and 1905. She returned to New Zealand between 1903 and 1906, setting up a studio in Wellington with fellow artist Dorothy Richmond.

Australians lionise our own pantheon of early 20th century artists, but are generally unaware of the often intersecting and parallel artistic lives celebrated across the Tasman. In 1900, Tom Roberts visited Hodgkins’ studio in Dunedin – ‘he greeted me as a brother brush which was flattering’, she told her sister Isabel. En route to England, she caught up with Roberts again, visited Arthur Streeton’s studio, and then socialised with Australian artists in London and Paris. For her work The Window Seat, Hodgkins shared – with Australian artist Thea Proctor – the first prize in the Australian Section of Women’s Art at the 1908 Franco-British exhibition. In a burst of trans-Tasman rivalry, she wrote to her mother in July 1908, ‘I believe if I had been an Australian I should have had the full prize’, although she told Dorothy Richmond that the prize ‘filled my heart with new courage’. Hodgkins often struggled to make ends meet and experienced periods of considerable hardship throughout her life.

Between 1908 and 1912 Hodgkins lived in Paris, painted, and opened a watercolour painting school. It was an extraordinary time in the history of modernist philosophy and expression, with expatriate artists such as Pablo Picasso, Giorgio de Chirico, Amedeo Modigliani and Constantin Brancusi drawn to the city – forming what became known as the School of Paris – and the period heralding the birth of Fauvism, Cubism, Expressionism and Symbolism. Hodgkins attended the opening of Marinetti’s first Futurist exhibition. According to Gerrish Nunn, Hodgkins’ Paris portraiture indicates that French impressionists Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt were major influences.

In 1912-13, Hodgkins toured an exhibition of about 70 paintings to Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Dunedin and Wellington. The Art Gallery of New South Wales purchased The Window Seat (1907) in 1913 – the first of her works acquired by a public collection outside New Zealand. Julian Ashton characterised her output in glowing terms, stating ‘Miss Hodgkins treats her medium with a directness which is amazingly refreshing’, and that a public reared on such ‘infants’ food’ as ‘prim … English watercolours’ should ‘stare with astonishment at Miss Hodgkins’ flamboyant modernities’.  

Intending to settle again in Paris, the First World War forced Hodgkins back to England – to St Ives on the Cornish coast. At this point in the exhibition’s narrative it had become clear that Hodgkins’ artistic journey can best be described as one of perpetual reinvention, rather than an orderly, modernist progression towards later, greater works. 

The 1920s ushered in a long and intense period of experimentation in portraiture for the artist. Her mastery of colour and the stylistic shifts that had commenced in Paris are evident in her intriguing portrait of 26 year-old surrealist artist Arthur Lett-Haines. Seventeen years later, in 1937, Hodgkins continued this exploration in Double portrait No.2, a painting of her friends, artist Katharine Church and writer Anthony West, aged in their twenties. Hodgkins worked from sketches made while staying at the pair’s Wiltshire farm. This portrait constituted a memorable concluding statement to the NZPG exhibition. ‘Picasso-esque in its cheekiness, it refuses to be traditionally descriptive or respectful of its sitters’, was Gerrish Nunn’s characterisation. The work is an example of how the relationship of artist and sitter, a pivotal element of portraiture, ignites the potential for insights into an artist’s personality. 

In her sixties, Hodgkins was welcomed into the inner circle of the British avant-garde, most of whom were (almost) half her age. ‘One of the things that goes unscrutinised and unappreciated’, Gerrish Nunn told me, is that Hodgkins was ‘an absolute magpie’, picking up ideas, techniques and styles from French and British artists, exhibitions and conversations. Equally, Hodgkins also had ‘her own palette and her own drivers, and at the same time she made herself part of the scene’. Author June Opie interviewed these artists for a 1969 radio documentary. ‘She could talk on almost any subject’, remembered Lett-Haines; ‘she was friendly and generous – very warm hearted indeed.’ Hodgkins was invited to join the Seven and Five Society, whose members included Graham Sutherland, Barbara Hepworth, and Henry Moore. All of them admired Hodgkins’ work and spoke to Opie of her sense of humour, courage, dedication and the clarity of her creative direction. 

The NZPG exhibition, refreshingly, acknowledged Hodgkins’ artistic pragmatism. For example, the motif of the mother and child provided some delightful sightlines through the space. Hodgkins never married or had children, but she was an artist working to survive. This subject was seen as ‘appropriate’ for a woman artist and, accordingly, sold well. In her catalogue essay, Gerrish Nunn observes that Hodgkins’ late move away from portraiture to focus on landscape and still life may also have been a practical response to her commercial and critical success with such subjects. Invited to represent Britain in the 1940 Venice Biennale, and recognised with a major retrospective at London’s Lefevre Gallery in 1946, Hodgkins died the following year, aged 77. In an affectionate obituary for the Burlington Magazine, Hodgkins’ friend, the artist and critic Eardley Knollys, wrote, ‘Frances Hodgkins was a romantic, lyrical painter so original that no one should try and label her’. This difficulty in allocating her work to a ‘school’ or ‘movement’ led to some ambivalence about Hodgkins’ place in later 20th century art history, despite New Zealand’s growing popular pride in her achievements.

My lasting impression of Frances Hodgkins: People at the NZPG was that Hodgkins’ work demands perpetual re-examination and re-discovery in a way that 21st century art historiography can truly embrace. Now the exhibition is over and loans returned, Gerrish Nunn told me that she is still ‘working towards a fuller and more rounded understanding of Hodgkins’ career and her body of work’. An ‘opportunity for another kind of taking stock’ will arise in 2019, the 150th anniversary of her birth. In exhibiting Hodgkins’ portraits, the NZPG made a formidable statement about its own position in New Zealand’s cultural life – through the inspirational recognition of a woman artist. The exhibition was also a powerful demonstration of portraiture’s haunting ability, without resort to self-portraiture, to illuminate a creative life.

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