History of New Zealand painting

Page 2 – Beginnings

Before official British colonisation began in 1840 itinerant artists had travelled to New Zealand shores and recorded their impressions in sketches to take back home. Artists surveyed the country, recording its features, finding land suitable for settlement and encouraging emigration. Often these works were sent back to Britain as publicity about New Zealand.

While artists often had scenic interests, they were also influenced by art historical practices and beliefs. Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s (1712–78) theory of the ‘Noble Savage’, in which he proposed that truly happy and dignified man lived in a state of nature unspoiled by European civilisation, was influential. The artists who came often portrayed Māori as an ideal race untainted by civilisation.

Interest in travel, different cultures and exotic lands attracted other artists to New Zealand. As Britain became more industrial and urban, some people adopted feelings of nostalgia for places untouched by the economic changes of the time. Faraway New Zealand, and especially its mountains, attracted new interest. These travelling or wandering artists recorded what they saw and often published books of their observations.

A landscape tradition

Most paintings produced in 19th and early 20th century New Zealand were landscapes. The main intention was not necessarily to create works of art but rather to provide information about the places depicted. These images also helped make the new world more familiar and less frightening. Artists employed a range of stylistic approaches that were popular in Europe and especially in British landscape art.

Travelling and settler artists brought to New Zealand European theories and practices and superimposed these on the New Zealand landscape. Well into the 20th century, art made in New Zealand was barely distinct from that of Europe – only the subject matter of people and place differed. Paintings were composed of elements pertaining to four main categories: topographical, the romantic or sublime, picturesque, and the ideal. 


Topography typically refers to the detailed mapping or charting of the features of a particular area, district or locality.

The topographical landscape showed a specific named place and was characterised by its diagram-like clarity. The topographical tradition survived into the 1880s in New Zealand, but by that time photography was becoming established and the need for topographical paintings had diminished.


Romanticism was an artistic, literary, and intellectual movement that originated in the second half of the 18th century in Europe. The Romantics valued subjective experience, the imaginative and the emotional over the objective and the rational. They placed particular emphasis on the sublime – a term defined by English philosopher Edmund Burke as feelings of awe, horror and fear. Evoking a sense of grandeur and solitude, the sublime was intended to emphasise man’s vulnerability and inadequacy when confronted with the power of nature and the wonders of God’s creation.


The picturesque was founded on principles opposed to that of ideal beauty. Works were characterised by their roughness and irregularity and the depiction of age and decay. For example, calm water is beautiful; broken water is picturesque. A tree, smooth and young, is beautiful; an old, battered tree is picturesque. William Gilpin (1724–1804), in his Essay on prints (1768), defined picturesque as ‘a term expressive of that peculiar kind of beauty, which is agreeable in a picture.’ Two aspects of the New Zealand scene became especially popular in picturesque depictions: the forest and the Māori village.


The ideal landscape borrowed its grammar and vocabulary from 17th-century Italian painting – especially that of Claude Lorrain (c.1600–82). The aim was to present a perfected nature. It was designed to evoke feelings of serenity and nostalgia for a lost paradise and the dreamed Arcadian innocence of antiquity.

Portraying Māori

Although landscape painting dominated New Zealand art, there was also intense interest in Māori as subject matter. Many artists made their living recording their impressions of New Zealand’s indigenous inhabitants. Particularly well known are Charles Goldie (1870–1947) and Gottfried Lindauer (1839–1926). As with landscapes, artists tended to follow accepted European styles in their depictions. The earliest artists, such as those on Cook’s voyages, portrayed Māori as ‘Noble Savages’. Goldie and Lindauer focused largely on Māori daily life and portraits of well-known figures. Their work also reflected the 19th century belief that Māori were a dying race.

Another popular way of representing Māori was in the tradition of exoticism – which in art and literature refers to the representation of one culture for consumption by another. Māori were often depicted as either topless (often Aryanised) beauties or as the cute and friendly exotic inhabitants of a country now rapidly changing through contact with European civilisation.

How to cite this page

'Beginnings', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/culture/nz-painting-history/beginnings, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 30-Nov-2018