Retelling the story of our first impressionist

Last updated 08:22 16/10/2012

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The "father" of New Zealand's impressionist art movement is the subject of art historian Jane Vial's lecture at the Marlborough Art Society next Tuesday.

"James Nairn and the Impressionist Movement" will be discussed in the second of three illustrated talks Ms Vial is giving this month. New Zealand's impressionist movement is one of her research specialties and she is the curator of a touring exhibition, "Bohemians of the Brush; Pumpkin Cottage Impressionists". Shown at different galleries for the past two years, it outlines how Nairn united modern artists around the country in the 1890s, helping redefine New Zealand painting.

Impressionist art had developed in France in the mid-1800s and became popular in England and, thanks to Nairn, New Zealand, in the early 1890s, Ms Vial says.

"He came to New Zealand directly from being a leading member of the Glasgow boys' Scottish impressionists," she says.

Dunedin was his first base, then he moved to Wellington where he and other artists used the famous Pumpkin Cottage in Silverstream.

"He was good at networking . . . and ended up being a reviewer of art for both Wellington newspapers, and he had a syndicate to Christchurch and Dunedin newspapers," Ms Vial says.

Nairn often wrote his reviews anonymously, she adds.

Plein air, or outside painting, is a feature of impressionist art, which replaces close subject details with bright, vibrant colours. It was not a universally popular form of art, but its practice in New Zealand was largely due to Nairn.

"Clearly he was a leader. If it hadn't been for him, we wouldn't have talked about what happened in Nelson, Dunedin, Wellington, Christchurch. He was an organiser, a mover and a shaker."

Tess, a painting by Nairn hanging at Te Papa, shows a milk maid with cows lining up around her for milking.

It was inspired by the lead character in the Thomas Hardy novel Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Ms Vial says, only Nairn's Tess is clearly in a New Zealand rural setting. The bright blue skies are of a summer day in the Antipodes, not the grey, overcast skies of Wessex where Hardy's Tess lives.

Jane Vial's lecture, "James Nairn and the Impressionist Movement", starts at 7pm next Tuesday at the Marlborough Art Society building, High St, Blenheim. Entry $10. It is the second of three talks Ms Vial is giving in Blenheim this month. Her first, about portrait artist William Beetham, starts at 7pm tonight at the art society.

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- The Marlborough Express

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