May Smith

Characterisation in colour

Characterisation in colour by May Smith

Artwork Detail

Reviewing the Society of Arts annual exhibition in the Auckland Star on 15 May 1941, Arthur C. Hipwell declared: 'The most challenging exhibits confront the viewer when entering the Gallery. May Smith heads this group with paintings which defy all recognised standards of approach'. Characterisation in Colour drew criticism from a conservative faction for its expressive rather than naturalistic use of colour, and for the fact that the sitter is depicted with a cigarette. When it was proposed as an acquisition for the Gallery more than a decade later, the City Councillors took considerable convincing of the painting's merits by the Gallery director, Eric Westbrook. May Smith first arrived in New Zealand in 1921, after a childhood in India where she learned to paint while convalescing from a series of hip operations. She enrolled at Elam School of Fine Arts and displayed facility in engraving, a medium she studied further at the Royal College of Art in London. Her subsequent activity as a textile designer and printer in England during the Depression is reflected in the decorative patterning and flattened pictorial space of Characterisation in Colour. Visiting Ibiza, in 1933, she met Frances Hodgkins, who encouraged her to paint, and she worked to develop a modernist style. On her return to New Zealand in 1939, Smith made a career as a teacher and illustrator, yet continued to exhibit regularly until her early eighties. (from The Guide, 2001)

Smith explained that she was inspired to paint the portrait of Marie Conlan when journeying back from Piha with some friends. She revealed to Peter Shaw that, singing ‘at the tops of our voices, I turned around and saw those big eyes and bang—there it was. The following weekend we went back to Piha to allow me to make the painting. Someone said “You can’t have that dull background” and produced a strongly-patterned bedspread. Away we went; it didn't take me long at all.’ (Intimate Portraits, 2005)

Characterisation in colour
May Smith
Production date
oil on canvas
762 x 609 mm
Credit line
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, purchased 1958
Accession no
Other ID
58/32 Old Accession Number
Copying restrictions apply
New Zealand Art
Display status
Not on display

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