Study of a Sudanese

35.5 x 25.5 cm
Signed with monogram and dated ’03 lower right
Exhibited: Wellington, 1904, no.18.
Frances Hodgkins People, NZ Portrait Gallery December 2017 – Feb 2018
Illustrated: E.H. McCormick, Portrait of Frances Hodgkins (Auckland, 1981), p.47.

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To Dorothy Richmond, 3 December 1902. Hotel Bristol, Tangier.

Salaams from Morocco! We’ve arrived…………. Heavens! how beautiful it is! Why aren’t you here you foolish and misguided woman… I am never going back to New Zealand – I am going to turn Moslem – I am going to wear a haik – I am going to lie on a divan for the rest of my days with a handmaiden called Fatima to wait on me….

In late 1902 Frances Hodgkins travelled to Morocco, accompanied by her friend Mrs Ashington, whom she had met at a summer sketching school in Caudebec. Her mentor Norman Garstin and two artists she had particularly admired, Frank Brangwyn and Arthur Melville, had made this trip before her. The trip can be seen as a continuation of her search for exotic subject matter, and in the old Moorish walled town of Tangier she was able to respond to the effects of sunlight, captured en plein air. In choosing to go to North Africa Hodgkins was following a path well-worn by English and French artists – including Delacroix, in 1832 – drawn by a romantic hankering for the exotic and the vogue for Orientalism.

In a letter to Dorothy Richmond, Hodgkins described the arrival at the port of Tangier:

Directly the boat stopped – some way from the landing pier – a thousand or so Moors hurled themselves on deck & began fighting violently over our baggage – some of them such magnificent looking men, bronze giants, others wizened up, wicked looking little brigands and a few coal black Nubians with plunging eyes.

In addition to the architecture and the market places of the city, Hodgkins was attracted by the dark skin and flowing garments of the local people. She told Dorothy Richmond of one of her models, a ‘ducky little Arab girl who we captured & painted in an aloe grove’, and who agreed to return the next day.

The subject of this portrait is sometimes said to be the artist’s young guide in Morocco, Absolom. However, he bears little resemblance to the boy identified as Absolom in a photograph from this trip, and the title identifies him as an immigrant from north-eastern Africa, rather than the local boy Absolom is said by Hodgkins’ biographers to have been.

Absolom, however, did play a significant role in Hodgkins’ visit to Morocco. She wrote to Richmond stating that ‘Absolom the trustworthy’ and was their main source of Tangier gossip; ‘he knows everything, and what he doesn’t know he guesses at.’ His knowledge of Tangier proved invaluable, while he also dispersed crowds of curious onlookers when Hodgkins and her companion painted in the market place, and shielded them from the Moroccan sun with an umbrella. In her portrait, strong sunlight falls directly on the faithful Absolom, whose eyes are downcast. Bold strokes of fluid colour flesh out the background, while the details of his garments are merely hinted at under the glare of the sun, all serving to draw attention to the face and the sitter’s dark brown skin.

On the boat to Tangier, Hodgkins encountered wealthy friends from Dunedin, David and Marie Theomin. Patrons of the arts and admirers of Hodgkins’ work, they commissioned a watercolour, Orange Sellers, Tangier (collection of Theomin Gallery, Olveston, Dunedin). In this market place scene the intensity of the sunlight has reduced a foreground display of fruit and vegetables to mere blobs of colour, in contrast to the shimmering whiteness which distinguish other areas of the composition. Here Hodgkins sought a general effect, the unique atmosphere of a street market, whereas Study of a Sudanese captured the character of an individual.


Written by Richard Wolfe Research by Jonathan Gooderham



Frances Hodgkins

Frances Mary Hodgkins (1869 – 1947) is regarded as one of New Zealand’s most renowned artists. Her works capture the spirit of an era greatly influenced by Impressionism and the beginnings of en plein air painting, Post-Impressionism, Fauvism and two World Wars. With a professional life that spanned fifty-six years, Hodgkins was one of the foremost artists of her generation. During her time in Britain she became one of the leaders of the English avant-garde during the 1930s and 1940s, and was one of the first New Zealand-born artists to achieve such stature.

Born in Dunedin on the 28 April 1869 to the distinguished watercolourist William Mathew Hodgkins and his Australian wife, Rachel Owen Parker, Frances Hodgkins’s artistic education continued outside the sphere of influence of her family. In 1893 she studied with the renowned expatriate artist Girolamo Pieri Nerli, (1860 -1926) who encouraged her in portraiture and figure painting, and then from 1895-96 she attended Dunedin School of Art.

Having left New Zealand for Europe in 1901, Hodgkins finally settled in England in 1913, where she spent most of her time in London. She took it upon herself to further her career in Europe and Britain by holding regular exhibitions of her work and becoming one of the first female teachers at the prestigious Académie Colarossi in Paris. Hodgkins toured around Normandy and Picardy with her group of students, sketching in the villages of Concarneau, Le Havre and St Valery-sur-Somme. It was on these teaching trips that Hodgkins met and befriended some of her most loyal companions, one of the most significant of which was Jane Saunders. Hodgkins first met Saunders and her partner, Hannah Ritchie, in 1911 at Concarneau and friends such as this pair, continually supported her throughout her life. Saunders and Ritchie also collected a number of major works by Hodgkins.

During the Second World War (1939 -1945) Hodgkins was in her 70’s and less resilient both physically and emotionally to the strains imposed by war. Consequently, she moved to a small studio at Bradford-on-Tone in Somerset where Geoffrey Gorer’s cottage was made available to her. Hodgkins continued to work ardently during this period and as a result she experienced the unexpected success of an exhibition held in 1940. This marked the turning point in Hodgkins career and from that time on her paintings were increasingly sought after. Following on from her success, Hodgkins was chosen in the spring of that year, to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale. Further accolades followed in 1942 when she was honored with a Civil List pension for her services to art and in 1944 when the Tate Britain bought one of her works. This was undoubtedly a highpoint in her career. In November 1946, to enthusiastic critical acclaim, the Lefevre Gallery held a retrospective exhibition of Hodgkins works. The exhibition included 64 paintings and 17 drawings ranging from 1902 to 1946 and the exhibition received a warm and positive response from the London press.

Today, Frances Mary Hodgkins is hailed as one of New Zealand’s most preeminent artists and her work is held in consistently high regard. Her works can be found in the permanent collections of most major New Zealand public galleries and in numerous British galleries including the Tate Britain, the Victoria & Albert Museum and The Manchester City Art Gallery.