Girolamo Nerli

Girolamo Pieri NErli

Italian (1860 - 1926)

Girolamo Pieri Pecci Ballati Nerli, commonly known as Girolamo Pieri Nerli or Girolamo Nerli, was born in Siena, Italy, on 21 February 1860. His mother was the daughter of Thomas Medwin, the biographer of Shelley and the author of “Conversations with Lord Byron.”

Nerli studied at the Art School in Florence under Antonio Ciseri and Muzzioli, before emigrating to Melbourne in 1885 and moving to Sydney in the following year. He is regarded as one of the pioneer plein air painters in Australia. His broad painterly effect, freer style and heightened colour effect had a bearing on the work of Charles Conder and prepared Australia for the advent of Impressionism.

In June of 1893 he moved to New Zealand and taught at the Dunedin School of Art while also privately tutoring Frances Hodgkins. Nerli spent just over three years in Dunedin. He brought new vigour to the circle of William Mathew Hodgkins, president of the Otago Art Society, and a cosmopolitan glamour to the city’s second, bohemian circle of painters, helping to make Dunedin the country’s leading art centre.

Nerli’s predilection for open-air genre paintings such as farm girls with turkeys seemed to strengthen Frances Hodgkins’ likening for similar subject matter. Not only did he help establish new standards in portraiture by influencing artists such as A.H. O’Keeffe and Grace Joel to heighten their colour range and paint more broadly, his techniques were incorporated to some extent into the Heidelberg School of Art in Melbourne.

Late in 1896 he left Dunedin suddenly. He stayed briefly in Wellington, then went on to Auckland where he opened a studio and exhibited at the Auckland Society of Arts’ annual exhibition in April 1897. On 5 March 1898, at the registrar’s office in Christchurch, he married Marie Cecilia Josephine Barron, the daughter of Margaret and John Edwin Barron of Auckland. It seems that the couple had eloped from Auckland. Immediately after their marriage they sailed for Australia, where they settled in Sydney and then Melbourne. They never returned to New Zealand.

Meeting with declining success the artist returned with his wife to Europe in 1904. He spent the rest of his life between London and Genoa, struggling against poverty because of his inability to establish a new reputation. He retained some connection with New Zealand, sending back a number of paintings for exhibition. He died in Genoa on 24 June 1926; his wife survived him.

Nerli has been described as an occasionally brilliant painter. Trained in the manner of the Macchiaioli, a group of Italian artists who sought a new freedom of execution and realism of subject matter, he brought a number of their innovations to Australasia.