This informal portrait of a girl in dappled sunshine is characteristic of the open-air genre subjects preferred by Italian immigrant artist Girolamo Nerli. The model is painted close-up, cropped, and smiling, as if ‘snapped’ by a camera, with the indefinite background of vegetation seeming almost out of focus. These techniques help give the portrait its spontaneous look, an effect that was considered radically modern in New Zealand at the beginning of the 20th century.
Nerli’s approach to painting had been shaped by similar ideas to those artist James M Nairn had absorbed before coming to New Zealand: plein air (painting outdoors) painting, with an interest in light and colour, and the capturing of fleeting moments in time. His style, characterised by broad brushwork and high-keyed colour, was influenced by an Italian group of artists, the ‘Macchiaioli’, who painted in broad patches of primary colour.Influential modern
Nerli came to Dunedin in 1889, the first of the modern painters bringing new artistic ideas from Europe. He taught at the School of Art, as well as giving private lessons in his studio. The artist Frances Hodgkins was one of his students in 1893. Fellow Easel Club member A H O’Keefe spoke of Nerli as the artist who ‘opened our eyes to colour’.