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Topic: Biography of Charles Frederick Goldie

Is part of topic Artist Biographies

Charles Goldie is one of this country’s most controversial artists, and one of the best known. He has been both denounced and praised by various critics, and squabbles about the artist and the value of his works continue today. But while he may be criticised by the art establishment, his paintings fetch high prices and the public loves his work. 

Goldie was born in 1870 in Auckland, the son of a timber merchant and former Mayor of Auckland. In 1892, he went to Paris to study art at the Académie Julian. There he received a conservative academic training which included life drawing and the copying of Old Masters from the Louvre. He won several prizes for excellence. At the time Impressionism was well-established in Paris, but Goldie was not influenced by such modern developments.

On his return to Auckland, Goldie set up the French Academy of Art. Goldie’s style remained largely the same throughout his career. 

At first Goldie painted historical allegories and commissioned portraits, but in 1901 he visited Rotorua where Mary Wharepapa, a friend’s wife, helped to persuade local Mäori to sit for him.  In 1902 Goldie made contact with elderly Mäori in the Auckland area, including Ina Te Papatahi, who was to become one of his favourite models. 

By 1904 Goldie was considered the leading portrait painter of Mäori, and was renowned for his technical brilliance.  However, he had his detractors – some critics believed his work was repetitive and lacked vitality. They also condemned his practice of painting from photographs. 
Goldie thought that Mäori were about to die out or be assimilated by the pakeha, and that he was recording the last survivors. The titles of many of his paintings – Last of the Cannibals, Darby and Joan, A Noble Relic of a Noble Race – reinforced this sentimental and romantic vision, as well as the dejected poses his elderly subjects would assume at his behest. 

In fact, the Mäori population, while it had declined in the last part of the nineteenth century, increased during the early part of the twentieth century, and many vigorous young Mäori political organisations were springing up – ‘this “old-time” Mäori was largely his [Goldie’s] own creation – a product of a European painter’s artistic training and social attitudes, not Mäori life as it had actually been lived and experienced by the Mäoris themselves’ (1).

However, many Mäori see Goldie's works as taonga representing irreplaceable ancestral images of koroua and kuia which, for Mäori, have special significance. 

By 1910 Goldie found it difficult to locate suitable subjects, since many of his old models had died or were too old to sit for him, so he painted from photographs, or copied from earlier works. 

In 1911, in response to calls for him to do more creative and original works, Goldie tried religious painting in the European tradition. The Child Christ in the Temple, questioning with the Doctors, found by His Parents received a poor response and he returned to painting Mäori portraits.    

Goldie’s career went into decline and in 1920 he tried to salvage it; he travelled to Australia with a view of later going to Paris for further training. However, he settled in Australia and continued to paint Mäori portraits from earlier sketches and photographs. 

He later returned to New Zealand in poor health, probably due to a combination of alcoholism and lead poisoning from flake white – a product used to prepare canvases. 

Goldie took ‘short cuts’ in his later works which were not of the same quality as his earlier paintings. As his reputation waned, he became embittered towards his critics and wrote long tirades against modern art, vigorously defending more traditional ideas. Goldie stopped painting in 1941 and died in 1947, aged seventy-seven.

(1) Bell, Leonard. (1980). The Maori in European Art. Wellington: Reed. p 72.

Text originally published in Tai Awatea, Te Papa's onfloor multimedia database (1998).

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