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Object: At Rotorua

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Title At Rotorua
Production Nerli, Girolamo (artist), circa 1897, New Zealand
Medium summary oil on panel
Materials oil paint, panels
Classification paintings
Dimensions Image: 307mm (Height) x 190mm (Width)
Frame: 477mm (Height) x 360mm (Width) x 30mm (Depth)
Sight: 300mm (Height) x 180mm (Width)
Support: x 13mm (Depth)
Credit line Gift of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, 1936
Registration number 1936-0012-174
As a young man Girolamo Nerli left his native Italy to travel to Australia and New Zealand, living and painting in various cities from 1885 until 1904. His longest stay in New Zealand, from 1893 to 1896, was at Dunedin, where he taught the young Frances Hodgkins.

Nerli made only a brief visit to Rotorua, en route to Auckland, but, judging by several sketches of the area that he exhibited at the Auckland Society of Arts in 1897, he made good use of his time there. At Rotorua, probably painted outdoors, avoids recognisable tourist landmarks in favour of a nondescript thermal area with a hot bathing pool, steam vents and a hint of native scrub. From these Nerli made a small gem of a painting full of shimmering light, steam and moisture.

Typically for Nerli, there is a recreational aspect to the sketch, with one of the bathers partially submerged in the pool and another streaking in the nude to its warmth and cover. This is an informal scene, and there is a hint of humour in the obvious vulnerability of the figure who runs towards the pool to avoid being seen by a passer-by.

Nerli had become acquainted with impressionism while studying in Florence in the early 1880s, and the influence was reinforced by his friendships with young Australian painters of the Heidelberg School, such as Charles Conder, Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton, in Sydney and Melbourne between 1885 and 1892. Part of the charm of his work is its unpretentious capturing of a slice of everyday life painted with technical fluency and a lightness of touch.

Contemporary photographs of young Maori women and children taken specifically for tourists usually featured Rotorua’s thermal pools as the backdrop that might contribute authenticity and exotic atmosphere to the scene. Here Nerli places the pool and the surrounding landscape at the centre of the painting, and allows his atmospheric sketch to convey the essential character of Rotorua.

Michael Dunn

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

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