AUCKLAND, New Zealand — The first specialist in Māori portraiture — and the most sought-after, in his day — was not a native New Zealander but a Czech immigrant trained in religious painting. Gottfried Lindauer, an artist born in Pilsen in 1839, first visited Aotearoa in 1874, when he began depicting both the indigenous people as well as Pākehā, or those of European descent. He ended up settling permanently and quickly established himself as a skilled portraitist, receiving countless commissions from individuals of both backgrounds. The demand is easily understood: life-sized and lifelike, his works are luminous and magnetic, each one striking for Lindauer’s careful attention to detail, from facial features to clothing to traditional face tattoos and accessories.
Over 120 examples now hang at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki in the immense, overcoming exhibition, The Māori Portraits: Gottfried Lindauer’s New Zealand, curated by Ngahiraka Mason and Nigel Borell. As the show’s title implies, the vast majority of the portraits capture Māori individuals, all organized by tribe, but paintings of Pākehā men and women are also on view. Representing the largest assembly of Lindauer’s works ever, the politicians, tribal leaders, warriors, tohunga (expert craftsmen), and many others from generations past together present a collective history of colonial New Zealand, capturing individual identities in a time of great social change and upheaval.
Many of Lindauer’s sitters lived in the decades marked by violent conflict over land ownership between the colonial government and indigenous tribes; their narratives, some drawn from living descendants, accompany each of the portraits, and the histories are as compelling as the images themselves. There’s Pikirakau, also known as Lucy Takiora Lord, or Bloody Queen Mary, who’s clutching a menacing shotgun in her hands. The daughter of a Māori woman and a European man, she was a guide and interpreter to the British armed forces and even assisted in government purchase of some of her own tribal territory. Then there’s Eruera Maihi Patuone, chief of the Ngāpuhi tribe, who encouraged his people to coexist with Europeans and extended protection to settlers who desired to live on his lands. Lindauer’s portrait highlights Patuone’s rangi paruhi, or full-faced tattoo, and taiaha, or fighting staff, but his expression is soft and suggestive of a good-natured demeanor.
For Māori, these images honored tribal members and memorialized ancestors in a new medium — carving, traditionally, was the art of choice. They hung the finished works not only in private homes but also in marae — tribal meetinghouses — and brought them out at funeral ceremonies or other significant occasions. It did not matter to them that Lindauer was from Europe: far from viewing the white man as an outsider, many presented him with gifts to reward his talent, and some groups even considered him as part of their whānau — their extended family.
The bohemian himself considered New Zealand his homeland, becoming a citizen in 1881 and visiting Europe only three times until his death in 1926. He immersed himself in Māori culture, respectfully observing their daily activity and studying the symbolism of their garments, carvings, and various types of facial tattoos lines. He portrayed his understanding of Māori life in large-scale scenes that accompany the portraits on view, from a row of men readying the land to plant kumara, to a young chief receiving his rangi paruhi from a tohunga, armed with a chisel.
Many of these portraits, however, are actually based on photographs. Lindauer achieved such realism and expression in part because of his particular integration of photography into his practice. His process varied from image to image, but in some instances, he actually painted over the photographs. A practicing photographer, he sometimes used his own images but very often worked from existing cartes de visite or glass plates by photographers such as the Foy Brothers and Elizabeth Pulman. Several Māori had their portraits taken as photography studios emerged across New Zealand, and Lindauer gathered many of his source images from them. He likely projected and enlarged these onto canvas, using the images as a guide that he then painted in with oils.
Although his work may not have been wholly original, it required more than just mechanical copying: he introduced color to enliven them, and sometimes added his own touches, introducing traditional accessories or altering a pose slightly to fit his own vision, or his patron’s. Several of these associated photographs and delicate plates are also on view in the exhibition, allowing you to see how Lindauer interpreted and transformed them.
Commissioned portraits gave Māori control over their own image as they could choose to adorn themselves with specific ornaments and weapons that conveyed their roles in their communities. Some portraits of Māori, however, belonged to European collections, which placed them in wholly different contexts. Many in the exhibition comprise the Partridge Collection, given to Auckland Art Gallery in 1915 by British businessman Henry Partridge. As Lindauer’s largest patron, Partridge commissioned dozens of Māori portraits from him through the years and also introduced the artists to Māori who became customers themselves. Partridge’s commissions reflected his interest in preserving Māori culture; at the time, colonials believed the indigenous population was dying out. Partridge may not have shared this view exactly, but some Europeans commissioned Māori portraits as records of an “exotic” local history, and ownership of them symbolized colonial control.
As art historian Leonard Bell summed it up in a catalog essay: “On one hand, a portrait could commemorate the presence, mana, and spirit of the subject. On the other, a portrayed person could be transformed into an exotic spectacle in which the figure was an actor.”
The indigenous population, of course, did not vanish, although numbers did fall from colonial conflicts and disease, positioning Māori as a minority in their native country. Many Māori did find ways to profit from the influx of immigrants, becoming influential, powerful landowners who adapted to European customs. Among Lindauer’s most intriguing portraits are those of Māori wearing European dress with just hints of traditional accoutrements, from faint tattoo lines to pounamu (greenstone) earrings to feathers from the then-endangered huia bird. These speak to the intercultural encounters and exchanges (including interracial marriages) that occurred but also to the patrons’ understood power of presentation, ennobling Māori through European codes of high status.
Lindauer stopped painting around 1918, prevented from working due to his failing eyesight. It’s uncertain how many portraits he produced in his decades-long career, but his ability to cross into various communities who may themselves have sparred certainly resulted in a diverse oeuvre. In creating each one, he was often helping someone assert an identity for posterity in a time of shifting ones. Those intentions resonate even more strongly today, as many of his paintings represent the only surviving images of Māori ancestors. Encountering them now, as Māori or others, invites all to explore specific histories that may otherwise have been overlooked, or simply, forgotten.
The Māori Portraits: Gottfried Lindauer’s New Zealand continues at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki (Corner Kitchener and Wellesley Streets, Auckland, New Zealand) through February 19.