Frances Hodgkins was a leading New Zealand artist and one of the foremost artists of her generation. The trajectory of her art was influenced by extensive overseas travel.
This painting is an example of Frances Hodgkins’ own version of impressionism. Figures, sky and grass are formed of energetic brushwork in colours that are at once gentle and lively. The sky takes up most of the frame and lights the painting with feelings of summery expansiveness. Blue shadows in the white fabric reflect colours in the sky, making them appear to almost merge together.
The following is an extract from the Te Papa Press book 'New Zealand Art at Te Papa':
When The hilltop was exhibited in Wellington in 1913, it was hailed as a model of impressionist style. According to one reviewer, Hodgkins had ‘fairly let herself go … in the way of colour, and the light is … positively scintillating’. This painting captures the freshness of a summer day, sunny yet breezy, the figures arranged in a charming tableau: the standing girl in white rests a hand on her hip, skirts swirling, head to the horizon; the small child holds on to her hat for fear of it blowing away; while the dark-clad seated woman presses her skirt down on her thigh, wary of unwelcome exposure.
In late 1908, around the time The hilltop was painted, Hodgkins was settled in Paris. There, she found inspiration in the work of the French impressionists and continued to master a fluid watercolour technique first introduced to her by the Italian artist Girolamo Nerli in her hometown, Dunedin, in the 1890s. In this painting she demonstrates a masterful ‘looseness of paint’, combining long strokes to suggest wind-flattened grass, with swirling gestures for clouds and deft touches of alternately gauzy and bold paint to detail the women’s clothing.
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In 1910 Hodgkins was the first female to be appointed as a teacher at the Académie Colarossi, and the following year she started her own successful watercolour school. Her work was being widely exhibited, receiving positive reviews and making sales. Yet she was torn between her commitments to family and her artistic career, writing to her mother, ‘Aren’t you willing I should stay & follow it up? … I wish you were as terribly ambitious for me as I am for myself.’
Hodgkins made her final visit to New Zealand during 1912 and 1913. Her spirit was ‘much bucked up’ by the success of her last New Zealand exhibition, held in Wellington, when three paintings, including The hilltop, were purchased by public subscription for the national collection.