Frances Hodgkins (1869-1947) is recognised as New Zealand’s most significant expatriate modernist painter to emerge during the twentieth century. Born in Dunedin, she spent the majority of her artistic career in Europe and the United Kingdom. She was highly considered among British avant-garde society and by the later stages of her career she had secured her position as a key figure in British Modernism. As a result of her time spent overseas, it is evident that Hodgkins modernist concerns of the period relate more closely to European, rather than New Zealand art. Consequently, her position as a leading artist within New Zealand art history has only been consolidated relatively recently.
Frances Hodgkins left for Europe for the first time in 1901. Prior to her departure, her works appear influenced by “impressionistic concerns of evoking light, colour and atmosphere.” (Michael Dunn, Frances Hodgkins: Paintings and Drawings, Auckland University Press, Auckland, 1994, p.8.). Hodgkins focused on familiar and domestic settings during these formative stages, working mainly in portraiture-placing models in casual outdoor settings, surrounded by shrubbery or still life. By the 1920s she was a recognised fixture in the British art scene. In 1929 Hodgkins became associated with the Seven and Five Society, exhibiting alongside leading British avant-garde artists such as Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Henry Moore. As a result of the group's influence she became particularly interested in combining landscape and still life genres in her work, often painting urns and jugs filled with bouquets of flowers and patterned table cloths which were set in the foreground of a landscape. This practice was considered hugely progressive at the time. What developed in her work from this period was an emphasis on colour, a strong use of compositional elements and a lyrical treatment of form.
The late 1930s onwards represents a highly productive and confident stage in Hodgkins’ career as she continued to consider new approaches in her use of iconography, colour, composition and style. Of particular note are her still life paintings from this period. What becomes crucial to the success of Hodgkins’ imagery at this time is the overall design of the works and the relationship between the line and shape of the arranged objects. The spatial ambiguity resulting from the placement of the objects in her still-life paintings gives the appearance of semi-abstracted works, characterised by sharp, floating forms that are held together with washes of colour. By the early 1940s, Hodgkins had exhibited in four major solo shows including those at Leicester and Lefevre Galleries, as well as participating in approximately thirty group shows in Britain and abroad. As a result of her artistic achievements she was selected as part of a small group of artists to represent Britain at the Biennale di Venezia toward the later stages of her career in 1940.