Fiji, 1894

Oil on board
21 x 34 cm
Literature: Entwistle, P., Dunn, M., and Collins, R., Nerli: An Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings, Dunedin Public Art Gallery 1988

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Girolamo Pieri Nerli was an Italian painter who worked and travelled in Australia and New Zealand in the late 19th century. He influenced Charles Conder and Frances Hodgkins and helping to move Australian and New Zealand art in new directions.

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’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.

The present work, Fiji, 1894, sees Nerli exploring an exotic and picturesque subject in the plein air technique, the bright colours of the figures’ garb appearing luminous against the dry ground basking in the hot Pacific sun. The figures appear to be dressed in saris, suggesting that these figures are of Indian descent, leading to Peter Entwistle’s conclusion that this work was executed during Nerli’s expedition to Fiji with Dunedin artist John Perret in August 1894. The pair journeyed to the Pacific country to paint the local scenery and hold tuition classes.

Fiji, 1894 was included in the major retrospective exhibition of Nerli’s paintings at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery in 1988, and is illustrated on page 140 of the exhibition catalogue, edited by Peter Entwisle, Michael Dunn and Roger Collins.