In 1940, six years after Margaret Stoddart’s death, EH McCormick observed in his centennial survey, Letters and art in New Zealand, that along with the still lifes of zinnias by DK Richmond, ‘Miss Stoddart’s roses have become part of the tradition of New Zealand painting’.(1) Stoddart acquired her reputation as a flower painter in the colonial period with closely observed studies of native plants, and with still-life paintings of cut flowers arranged in a vase on a table and set against a plain background. While she retained this traditional composition, she developed over the following decades a whole range of impressionist and decorative effects that define her distinctive style.
Roses is a virtuoso display of Stoddart’s later watercolour technique in which she demonstrates her skill in the control of washes and play of reflections on the polished table, and in the loose mesh of rapidly applied and vigorous brushmarks that makes up the patterned background. This is one of her boldest and most accomplished flower paintings, and when the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts purchased it in 1930 it was their second still life of roses acquired from the artist for their collection.
Although Stoddart’s success was initially won in flower painting, she gained recognition for impressionist landscapes such as Old homestead, Diamond Harbour, c.1913 (Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu), a depiction of the artist’s birthplace, which would later become one of her best-known works. In the late 1920s she began to explore a new range of regional motifs. Less interested in the play of light, she now concentrated on simplifying her compositions, restricting colours and frequently drawing and emphasising a particular form in charcoal. In View of Mount Cook, she reduces the landscape to a few basic elements, adjusting her viewpoint to draw attention to the boulders, shingle and grasses. Stoddart’s stark images of the South Island hinterland and her robust handling of the watercolour medium confounded gender expectations, struck a chord with fellow painters, and challenged critics to recognise the breadth and variety of her subjects and styles.
This essay originally appeared in Art at Te Papa (Te Papa Press, 2009).