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Painter Nerli’s Contribution to NZ Art


30 June 2005

Painter Nerli’s Contribution to NZ Art of Enduring Interest: Leading Art Historian

Italian painter Nerli’s contribution to New Zealand art is of unique and enduring interest says leading art historian Professor Michael Dunn (Elam, University of Auckland).

Michael Dunn will shortly publish Nerli: An Italian Painter in the South Pacific (Auckland University Press), the culmination of his 35-year study of the life and work of the Marchese Girolamo Pieri Nerli (1860–1926).

Nerli, as he has become known in New Zealand, lived and worked in Australasia in the latter two decades of the century. He had a huge impact in the development of painting in New Zealand in the 1890s, not least because of his influence on his pupil Frances Hodgkins, and he helped make Dunedin a leading art centre in the country.

“Being somewhat gregarious and fun-loving, Nerli made an impression on a number of his fellow artists and, as a foreigner, was the subject of some fanciful anecdotes and rumours,” Dunn says, “and his claims to noble lineage in Italy added to his appeal and helped to embellish the stories about his character, morals and family history."

“His painting, too, was somewhat controversial, making sure that he gained media attention and, for a while, some notoriety as an avant-garde experimenter who rode roughshod over conventional practices and theories."

Nerli lived in Dunedin, Wellington and Auckland and spent time in Christchurch, where he had eloped from Auckland to marry his wife just before they left New Zealand for good.

He is an increasingly collectable painter in New Zealand, also particularly in Australia, and paintings by Nerli are held in the significant public galleries and a number of private collections.

In the end, though, like many other painters of the day, Nerli found that it was almost impossible to make a living from his art in New Zealand or Australia. Instead of staying in the Antipodes, he finally decided to return to Europe, thus, almost writing himself out of the history of Australasian art.

“At his best he was the equal of many of his contemporaries as both a landscape and a portrait painter. His art and life, taken together with his influence as a teacher, more than justify a fresh appraisal of the man and his achievements."

Nerli: An Italian Painter in the South Pacific

Michael Dunn

Hardback, colour plates, b&w illustrations; $79.99

-- ENDS –

Michael Dunn

Professor Michael Dunn recently completed a term as the Head of the Elam School of Fine Arts at the University of Auckland.

Born in Ashburton and raised in Canterbury, New Zealand, he graduated from the Canterbury School of Fine Arts with a degree in Painting before going on to do an Honours degree and then his Masters in Fine Arts at the University of Melbourne.

He has a PhD in Art History from the University of Auckland.

Dr Dunn has taught Art History for nearly 25 years and was Head of the University of Auckland’s Art History Department before he was appointed to the Chair at Elam in 1994. He was on the board of the Auckland Art Gallery from 1977 to 1996.

He has published at least 24 books on artists and art-related topics as well as many papers and articles for specialist journals around the world.

His books include the standard art/art history reference works New Zealand Sculpture: A History (AUP, 2002), New Zealand Painting: A Concise History (AUP, 2003) – a revised and expanded edition of A Concise History of New Zealand Painting (Craftsman House, 1991; 1993) reformatted as a companion volume to his New Zealand Sculpture – and Contemporary Painting in New Zealand (Batemans, 1996).

He also co-edited, with Elizabeth Eastmond and Iain Buchanan, Frances Hodgkins Paintings and Drawings (AUP 1994, HB) which, due to popular demand, was reissued in paperback in January 2002 (AUP).

Michael Dunn’s latest book is Nerli: An Italian Painter in the South Pacific (AUP, 2005), a major study of the increasingly collectable painter Girolamo Pieri Nerli, who had an enormous impact on Antipodean painting and painters in the late nineteenth century.

Nerli: An Italian Painter in the South Pacific
Paintings featured in this new study and held in New Zealand include:


Jonathan Grant Gallery
Plate 1 The Springtime of Life

Auckland City Art Gallery
Plate 14 The First at the Rendez-Vous,
Plate 27 Woman with Turkeys
Plate 28 A Study: Head of a Girl

Fletcher Trust Collections
Plate 36 Sunset at Sea

Canterbury Hospital Board Figure 26
A Wet Winter Day

Hocken Collections, University of Otago
Plate 6 Portrait of a Young Woman Artist
Plate 11 Fitzroy Gardens
Plate 12 Street Scene
Plate 21 The Quarry, Water of Leith
Plate 25, Portrait of Arthur Hadfield Fisher
Plate 26 Portrait of W M Hodgkins

Dunedin Public Art Gallery
Plate 30 Portrait of a Girl
Plate 38 Aïda
Plate 39 Old Venezia, Leghorn

Otago Girls High School
Plate 24 Portrait of Dr D.M. Stuart

Sarjeant Gallery, Coastal Landscape

Te Papa
Plate 32 Girl in Sunbonnet
Plate 34 At Rotorua
Figure 32 Market Day, Rome

Private NZ Collections
Plate 17, Portrait of an Actress
Plate 22, Dunedin Street Scene
Plate 23, The Blacksmith
Plate 37 In Days of Old Rome


1860 Born Siena, Italy
1885 Went to Australia
1889 Visited Dunedin for the New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition, at which several of his paintings were shown
1892 Visited Samoa and painted famous portrait or writer Robert Louis Stevenson
1893–1896 Dunedin: private art teacher. Helped to make Dunedin the country's leading art centre. It was in these years that he taught NZ’s greatest expat artist, Frances Hodgkins, inspired A H O'Keeffe and, according to rumour, had an affair with painter Grace Joel.

1893 Elected to the Council of the Otago Art Society
1894 Opened the Otago Art Academy, with J D Perrett and L W Wilson
1895 Taught at Dunedin School of Art and Design
1896 Left Dunedin suddenly and stayed briefly in Wellington
1896–1897 Auckland – opened a studio
1898 Christchurch married Cecilia Barron after eloping with her from Auckland; left New Zealand immediately for Australia and never returned

1904 Returned to Europe
1926 Died in Switzerland

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