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Object: Purple and bronze

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Title Purple and bronze
Production Richmond, D. K. (artist), 1905, Wellington
Medium summary oil on canvas
Materials oil paint, canvas
Classification paintings
Dimensions Image: 340mm (Height) x 310mm (Width)
Frame: 610mm (Height) x 580mm (Width) x 42mm (Depth)
Credit line Purchased 2005
Registration number 2006-0006-1

In 1905 Dorothy Kate Richmond and her friend Frances Hodgkins travelled from Wellington to Rotorua on a sketching trip. The two artists had recently returned from Europe, where they had met at a summer school in Normandy run by painter Norman Garstin. They had travelled and painted together in Europe, and showed the fruits of this in an exhibition at Wellington’s McGregor Wright Gallery in 1904. While the exhibition was successful, the trip north was an opportunity for both artists to apply some of what they had learned in Europe to local subject matter.

Artists working at Newlyn, Cornwall, such as Garstin and Elizabeth and Alexander Stanhope Forbes, favoured depictions of life untouched by modernity and industrialisation - the fishermen of Cornwall or the rural peasants of Europe. It was with this in mind that Richmond and Hodgkins sought out Maori as subjects for their pictures; not that they were necessarily sympathetically disposed towards their models. Writing from her hotel in Ohinemutu, Hodgkins complained to her mother that the local Maori were ‘coy and greedy’.(1) Nor, indeed, were the images seen as particularly authentic. One reviewer felt that Richmond’s Maori were more akin to ‘Italians or negroes’, but nonetheless found them ‘altogether charming’.(2)

Purple and bronze shows a woman and a child on the porch of a whare. The naked child’s rich skin tones suggest the bronze of the picture’s title, while the woman - perhaps the child’s mother - wears purple. One of several canvases, including Potato peelers, 1905 (Hocken Collections, Uare Taoka o Hakena, University of Otago), and Women with children, 1905 (Rotorua Museum of Art and History), that resulted from the trip to Rotorua, Richmond worked these paintings up from copious sketches as well as photographs. In subject and composition, Purple and bronze is remarkably similar to Hodgkins’ The idlers, 1905 (private collection), right down to the open kete, or flax basket, on the ground. The major difference is in Richmond’s medium. While it would be some years before Hodgkins began working in oil, Richmond here has it in her full command. The rich, closely toned colours and thick, creamy brushstrokes combine with the flowing forms characteristic of the very current style of art nouveau, placing Richmond at the forefront of modern developments in New Zealand painting.

William McAloon

This essay originally appeared in Art at Te Papa (Te Papa Press, 2009)

1. Frances Hodgkins, letter to Rachel Hodgkins, 5 June 1905; reprinted as letter 119 in Linda Gill (ed.), Letters of Frances Hodgkins, Auckland University Press, Auckland, 1993, p. 176.

2. New Zealand Times, 14 October 1905, p. 7, cited in Gordon H Brown, New Zealand painting 1900-1920: Traditions and departures, exhibition catalogue, Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council of New Zealand, Wellington, 1972, p. 43

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