Elizabeth Rankin discusses two exceptional works by Charles Frederick

By April 5, 2017News

“Goldie is New Zealand’s ‘Old Master’” – so writes Roger Blackley in the comprehensive catalogue for the Goldie exhibition mounted by Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki in 1997. The term ‘Old Master’ implies many things. It suggests work made in the distant past; given the relatively short duration of New Zealand’s settler culture, Goldie can be counted amongst the early New Zealand-born Pākehā artists, even if few enough of his paintings were made before the 20th century. The term also indicates a certain style of work – invariably naturalistic and always executed with great skill – and Goldie’s superlative realism and painterly expertise fit that requirement perfectly. He developed a distinctive technique, with enlivening brushwork featuring in his underpainting while the surface detail of his paintings is meticulously applied with fine brushes.

But, above all, ‘Old Master’ evokes esteem and here, too, there is a neat match for Goldie. Despite the fact that his traditional style may have alienated modern art aficionados, he has always enjoyed popular admiration and exhibitions like the 1997 one, together with renewed scholarly interest, have added to his status. He has also been accorded an additional layer of regard – one might almost say reverence – by Māori, who value his work as a record of their ancestors: a visual whakapapa. This was an aspect brought home at an exhibition 10 years earlier at the Auckland Art Gallery, when Goldie portraits were displayed to complement the taonga of the prestigious Te Maori exhibition in 1987.

So who was this artist who merits the title of New Zealand’s ‘Old Master’ on so many counts? Charles Frederick Goldie (1870–1947) was born in Auckland to a well-to-do family and already showed talent as a schoolboy when he won art prizes. He studied here with Louis John Steele and then went to the Académie Julian in Paris in 1893, returning to Auckland in 1898. While the large work, The Arrival of the Maoris in New Zealand, produced together with Steele that year, demonstrates some aspirations to be a history painter in the grand manner, Goldie made his name as a portraitist or, more precisely, as a painter of character studies of Māori. He favoured elderly Māori as subjects, possibly because they had moko, which he reproduced scrupulously. But it seems he also selected them as affective subjects, embodying a past that was fading. This is reflected in their rather sentimental titles, as well as in the way that many are shown in reverie with downturned eyes and introspective expressions, or even asleep. Goldie’s works were much admired for this sense of melancholy that seemed to evoke the idea of Māori as a dispirited dying race: a concept widely entertained at the time, despite rising census figures. This perspective also earned the artist animosity from some scholars.

But while it is clear that Goldie used his sitters as types, rather than thinking of them as portraits, we should be wary of too hastily categorising his work as mere patronising, colonial representations because there are many works that challenge this definition, including the two paintings included in this auction. Te Hei has a keen sense of agency as she gazes quizzically at us and her Western clothes and those of the unidentified boy in A Hot Day may, in fact, suggest that Goldie believed that Māori would not die out but be assimilated into Pākehā culture. It was an idea with which he would have been familiar as it was discussed by his brother William in an article, ‘The Destiny of the Maori Race’, in the New Zealand Herald Supplement of 18 May 1901.

Whatever his motives, Goldie painted a very large number of Māori subjects in the first two decades of the 20th century. The works were complemented by distinctive black wooden frames, made to Goldie’s design, which served to pick out his paintings for art critics and buyers amidst crowded ‘wallpaper’ hangs in galleries at the time. These were not commissioned works: Goldie employed these men and women as sitters in his studio, often emphasising their ethnicity by having them wear traditional cloaks and greenstone ornaments that he owned. Yet, although they were being presented as Māori characters, he observed them closely, often returning to the same preferred sitter. Hence the inherent paradox of his works reading as both types and individuals.

After two highly productive decades, Goldie hardly painted in the 1920s as he suffered ill health. But when he took up his art again in the 1930s, it was to international recognition, with works exhibited in Paris and London attracting attention, and continuing support in New Zealand. It is hardly surprising then, that he deployed the same painstakingly delineated subject matter and, indeed, often the same subjects, working from earlier drawings and photographs. Although modernism was in full swing and gaining increasing recognition in New Zealand, Goldie’s consummate verisimilitude continued – and still continues – to impress.