The model for the painting Tess was reputed to be Alice Jones, aged 16, at her father’s farm in Pauahatanui, New Zealand. The artist, James M Nairn, proposed to her when she was 18, but she rejected him as being, at 36, too old. By calling his painting Tess, Nairn has recast her as the eponymous heroine of Thomas Hardy’s novel Tess of the d'Urbervilles, imbuing her with the pastoral innocence of the central character early in the novel.
Study of light Despite the literary title, Nairn’s real subject seems to be the study of light, atmosphere, and colour. The work is typical of his paintings of rural outdoor scenes. The figure of Tess is given minimal prominence and functions as a feature of the landscape in the same way as the cows, trees, cottage, and grasses. Nairn creates a pervading sense of sunlight with his broken brushwork, ‘spotlit’ whites, and contrasts of warm and cool tones.
Glasgow boyNairn trained in Scotland and was associated with the progressive Glasgow school of painters, the Glasgow Boys. He used a modified form of French Impressionism. This involved more subdued colours and more regulated brush strokes, but he still sought to capture the immediacy of outdoor light, particularly the effect of strong sunlight on outdoor forms.
New Zealand yearsNairn emigrated to New Zealand in 1890 for health reasons and taught at the Wellington Technical College. He brought much needed freshness and vitality to New Zealand painting. He exhibited with the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts but, in 1892, dissatisfied with this institution, he formed the Wellington Art Club.
Nairn had a significant impact on New Zealand painting. He was a firm believer in the plein air style of painting, which involved working outdoors, directly from nature. He urged his followers to ‘to paint the thing as one sees it’. In an 1892 lecture, he said, ‘If we want art we must begin at the point where all great artists have begun. The study of nature from life or outside.’ In 1894, Nairn rented Pumpkin Cottage at Silverstream, not far from Wellington, which became a favourite meeting place for artists interested in outdoor painting.