There are a small number of New Zealand artists that have produced paintings that were exhibited in galleries across the world. These include the rather sombre patterns of Ralph Hotere and Colin McCann. To my eye, Grahame Sydney, Marilyn Webb and Robin White have created art pieces that mean something to my photographer’s eye. Before any of them took up the paint brush, there was a man who focused on portraits of Maori men and women. Today, these portraits are amongst the most prized art pieces to come from New Zealand. His Maori faces are instantly recognized making him New Zealand’s best known artist.

Charles Goldie (NZ Herald)

Charles Goldie was born into a wealthy Auckland family on the 20th October 1870. His father was a timber merchant who at one time was mayor of Auckland. Charles first demonstrated a flair for painting while a boy at Auckland Grammar School. His art won prizes from Auckland Society of Arts as well as the New Zealand Art Students’ Association. In December 1892, the Auckland Academy of Art exhibited one of his Maori portraits. It was the first exhibition of his work. At the time, some thought his paintings were too similar to a photograph and didn’t appreciate them as works of art.


In 1893, Charles enrolled at the Academie Julian in Paris and spent 5 years there studying the old masters. He won some studio competitions at the Academie and his work was noted by a number of people in the Paris art world. A year after he returned home, the Auckland Society of Arts purchased his large historical painting, The Arrival of the Maoris in New Zealand for 200 pounds. This is arguably the best known of all paintings featuring Maori. In 1900, he donated some of his portraits to the Auckland Society of Arts and from this point in his career he became regarded as Auckland’s leading painter and art tutor.

The Arrival of Maoris in NZ (Te Ara)


Like many European settlers at the start of the 20th century, Goldie thought the Maoris were a dying race and he wanted to record their images for posterity. He was particularly attracted to elderly Maori men and women with facial tattoos. There were complaints from some after he painted them smoking pipes which they claimed they didn’t smoke. He also painted most of his indigenous models with depressed expressions which didn’t endear him to many Maoris. I checked through a collection of his Maori portraits and only found two with a smile. Despite these negative aspects of his work, he managed to convince some Maori chiefs to pose for him in his Auckland studio. He had a wardrobe of cloaks and feathers he used to dress his subjects with and I guess they were happy to go along with his belief that they were: “noble relics of a noble race” as acquaintances in his social circle suggested.

Ena Te Papatahi by Goldie  (Wikipedia)

Goldie produced a new exhibition every year for 19 years. Before the First World War, his large pictures sold for over 100 pounds but after 1919, he turned his focus to small scale paintings on wooden panels. In the early 1920s, he stopped producing art works. It has been suggested he suffered from lead poisoning after years of breathing paint particles while sanding the undercoats for his various portraits. In those days, paint had a significant lead content.

His health had improved by 1930 so he resumed his painting and sent some of his work to exhibitions in London and Paris. His popularity made him a wealthy man and in 1941, he gave up painting for good. He was able to retire knowing his works were on display in museums and galleries across New Zealand and abroad. Purchases from private collectors also added to his bank account. Six years after retirement, Charles Goldie died in Auckland at the age of 77.


As a young boy I can remember a Goldie painting, in a wooden oval frame  featuring a rather severe looking Maori man in traditional clothing and face tattoo. It had belonged to our grandmother and was on the wall in the laundry. When my parents had some renovations made to that part of the house, the painting was sent to the tip!! I cringe to think what it would be worth now considering similar Goldie pieces have recently sold for around half a million dollars. My parents were not interested in art and were obviously unaware of the value of Goldie’s work. They also found the expression on the face in the painting was depressing. Who is wearing the glum expression now!!!

If you found this blog interesting, please let me know in the comments section.

Ceidrik Heward

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