Story: Nerli, Girolamo
This biography was written by Peter Entwisle and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 2, 1993
Girolamo Pieri Pecci Ballati Nerli, commonly known as Girolamo Pieri Nerli or Girolamo Nerli, was born in Siena, Italy, on 21 February 1860. He was the fourth of six children of an Italian aristocrat, Ferdinando Pieri Nerli, and his wife Henrietta Medwin, an Englishwoman whose father was a minor literary figure in Byron's circle. Although he was sometimes styled marchese, Girolamo Nerli was not entitled to that form of address but rather to the honorific patrizio di Siena.
Having studied art in Florence under Antonio Ciseri and Giovanni Muzzioli, Nerli went to Australia in 1885. There he was an associate of the Heidelberg painters and an important influence on Charles Conder. Later he was one of three professional painters, with Petrus van der Velden and James Nairn, who settled in New Zealand in the 1890s and inspired a generation with the new developments that were occurring in European art. He taught or influenced A. H. O'Keeffe, Grace Joel and, notably, Frances Hodgkins.
In Australia Nerli at first studied and exhibited in Melbourne, but making little impression there went on to Sydney where he encountered Conder. By late 1887 he had caused a stir exhibiting paintings of bacchanalian orgies. The free brushwork and unfinished appearance of the works were as exciting to the connoisseurs as the subject matter was to the general public. In 1888 and 1889 Nerli was back in Melbourne, apparently in the company of the Heidelberg painters. Later that year he went to Dunedin for the New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition, at which several of his paintings were shown as part of the New South Wales Loan Collection. He returned to Australia in 1890, and in 1892 visited Samoa where he painted the portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson which is now in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh. In 1893 he returned to Dunedin and set himself up as a private art teacher.
Nerli spent just over three years in Dunedin. He brought new vigour to the circle of William Mathew Hodgkins, president of the Otago Art Society, and a cosmopolitan glamour to the city's second, bohemian circle of painters, helping to make Dunedin the country's leading art centre. It was in these years that he taught Frances Hodgkins, inspired A. H. O'Keeffe and, according to rumour, had an affair with Grace Joel. He was elected to the council of the Otago Art Society in 1893, and in February 1894, with J. D. Perrett and L. W. Wilson, opened the Otago Art Academy. In the face of competition from his classes the Dunedin School of Art and Design hired Nerli as teacher of painting in February 1895. Nerli's private academy closed later that year, although apparently he continued to take private pupils.
Late in 1896 he left Dunedin suddenly. He stayed briefly in Wellington, then went on to Auckland where he opened a studio and exhibited at the Auckland Society of Arts' annual exhibition in April 1897. On 5 March 1898, at the registrar's office in Christchurch, he married Marie Cecilia Josephine Barron, the daughter of Margaret and John Edwin Barron of Auckland. It seems that the couple had eloped from Auckland. Immediately after their marriage they sailed for Australia, where they settled in Sydney and then Melbourne. They never returned to New Zealand. Meeting with declining success the artist returned with his wife to Europe in 1904. He spent the rest of his life between London and Genoa, struggling against poverty because of his inability to establish a new reputation. He retained some connection with New Zealand, sending back a number of paintings for exhibition. He died, childless, in Genoa on 24 June 1926; his wife survived him.
Nerli has been described as an occasionally brilliant painter. Trained in the manner of the Macchiaioli, a group of Italian artists who sought a new freedom of execution and realism of subject matter, he brought a number of their innovations to Australasia. In Charles Conder and Frances Hodgkins he taught Australia's and New Zealand's greatest expatriates, but the poverty of his vision and his failure to develop relegated him to a lesser success than theirs.
Even so, he painted a few works that have given him a lasting place in Australasian art history. His fashion piece 'The sitting' (1889) is worthy of Tissot, and his lost work 'The ascension' ( c. 1887) was a technical tour de force. With its lack of finish and daring brushwork, this painting anticipated the abstraction of the mid twentieth century. Some of the landscapes of Nerli's Heidelberg period, such as 'Beach scene, Black Rock' ( c. 1889) and 'Fitzroy Gardens' ( c. 1889) show him to have combined the new objectivity that superseded romantic landscape with a lyricism that may be compared with that of the French impressionists. His greatest achievements, however, are a few penetrating portraits that reveal elusive states of mind. Foremost is the portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson, which shows us the sickness of the writer in the last stages of his tropical decay. The commissioned 'Portrait of Dr D. M. Stuart' (chancellor of the University of Otago and first minister of Knox Church), which was presented to Otago Girls' High School in 1894, comes close to this success. 'Portrait of a young woman artist' ( c. 1889) is a cousin of 'The sitting' but it too captures a mental attitude that aligns it with Nerli's other psychological works. His 'Portrait of a girl' (1894?) is a minor masterpiece, brilliantly evoking the ambivalence of adolescence. At his occasional best Nerli was daring, perceptive and refined. It is regrettable that circumstances did not permit him to produce more works of that quality.