Charles Goldie painted portraits of Maori for over forty years, often working on several paintings simultaneously. His paintings have attracted their fair share of flak from critics, but with their meticulous attention to detail and almost photographic realism, they have always been popular with the public. Goldie’s portraits fetch high prices and are revered by many Maori as faithful images of their ancestors.
After his return from study in Paris, Goldie’s style varied very little. It was based on the principles of drawing and painting from the life model taught at the Academie Julian where Goldie studied.
Almost all Goldie’s portraits adhere to a typical portrait format: head and shoulders or half-length figures seated against a background. The subjects are almost always in a ‘Goldie pose’ giving a feeling of despair or melancholy: eyes averted, and shoulders hunched. The backgrounds are usually dark with little detail, which makes Darby and Joan exceptional, both for its detail and for the size of the figure.
Goldie painted from photographs – something he was criticized for at the time – and also used models to pose for him, sometimes photographing them for future reference. He had a small number of favourite, mainly older, Maori models whom he painted several times. For example, he painted over eighteen portraits of Ina Te Papatahi. Goldie always directed his models, telling them exactly how to sit and what expression to assume. He also supplied his models with cloaks, jewellery, and other Maori artefacts from his private collection to make the portraits seem more realistic.
Goldie was much admired for his technique, which was characterised by meticulous attention to detail. He would start his portraits by making a detailed charcoal sketch. He then shaded areas in, with a limited palette of light red, yellow ochre and white, mixing basic pigments to make his characteristic colours. Although more vibrant pigments were available, they were disliked by more conservative artists like Goldie.
Once the general features of his portraits were established, Goldie started work on the finishing layers of face and hair – ‘building [the hair] up with an interwoven mat of increasingly finer brushstrokes over the top of the basic dead colouring’ (1). He took pride in his ability to render skin colour and texture and went to great lengths to ensure moko (facial tattoos) appeared to be engraved into the skin.
In keeping with his academic style, Goldie made sure that his brushmarks were not too obvious, although he ‘never aimed for the almost mirror-like surface of many academic practitioners’ (2). Close up, the canvas appears textured with cross-hatching, as if the paint has been woven into the canvas.
While some believe Goldie’s portraits provide useful ethnological information about the dress, artefacts and facial characteristics of Maori at the turn of the century, not everyone agrees. ‘Charles F. Goldie may have assumed he was doing future generations a great service by recording “the Maori as he was”; by picturing, for posterity, the vanishing times of a noble race. He misjudged his sitters. He misjudged their descendants. He assumed too much. The world has moved on, indeed.’ (3).
Since the early part of the twentieth century, there has been heated debate in this country about the artistic merit of Goldie’s paintings. With the extreme reactions Goldie’s paintings seem to provoke, it looks as if this debate will continue for many years to come.
(1) Blackley, Roger. (1997). Goldie. Auckland: Auckland Art Gallery and David Bateman. p 125.
(2) Blackley. (1997). p 125.
(3) Blackley. (1997). p 114.
Text originally published in Tai Awatea, Te Papa's onfloor multimedia database (1998).