New Zealand Art Styles

The dominant art styles of New Zealand have changed over time. They reflect new developments in national society as well as the international art community. The most obvious difference between them is their aesthetics. However, there are also important distinctions in the philosophies of each art style.

Romantic And Sublime

This movement started during the latter half of the 18th century. It started in Europe but eventually made its way to New Zealand thanks to colonialists. Romantic artists rejected objective and rational thought. Instead they favoured imagination and emotion. The subjective experience of the individual was very important to the philosophy of Romanticism. This led to a new kind of aesthetic called the Sublime. Paintings of this style tended to elicit feelings of awe or even horror. Grandeur was used to show how vulnerable the individual is. The Romantics strove to convey humanity’s inadequacy when faced with powerful forces of nature.


The Picturesque Movement opposed the concept of an ideal beauty. These paintings had rough textures and asymmetrical patterns. They also often depicted images of human ageing and decay. Pictures from this period that had broken water and old, battered trees are usually characterised as Picturesque. The wild nature of New Zealand was ideal for artists who wanted to depict landscapes in a Picturesque way. The term was coined by William Gilpin. He believed it was all about showing peculiar forms of beauty in an aesthetically pleasing way. Maori villages were particularly popular for Picturesque artists. The forest areas of New Zealand were also regularly depicted.


Ideal art was in some ways a reactionary response to the Picturesque Movement. Ideal artists sought to show nature as a perfect, uncorrupted entity. Their paintings were designed to make the viewer feel both nostalgic and serene. Much of the aesthetic was inspired by a 17th century painter called Claude Lorrain. His work and that of the Idealists often showed Eden-like meadows. The works date back to a more innocent time. The varied natural spaces of New Zealand would have given the Idealists plenty of images to work with.


Unlike the previous styles, Regionalism originated in New Zealand itself. It began to emerge during the late 1930s. This was a response to criticism that not enough paintings focused on local subjects and concerns. Regionalism attempts to define the identity of New Zealand. It also tends to focus on spaces within the Christchurch area. This is due to the fact that Christchurch art students became the main exponents of Regionalism.

There was no set aesthetic. Instead individual artists brought their own unique approaches to the movement. A diverse number of styles emerged as a result. Isolation and feelings of loneliness were common themes. Other artworks were more jovial and celebrated the rural settings of New Zealand. Many paintings used contrasts between light and darkness. This was a fairly realistic depiction of the harsh natural light in the country.

Reluctance of Later Styles

It took some time for the revolutionary art movements of the 20th century to reach New Zealand. It took much longer for them to influence painters in this country. The physical isolation of New Zealand as an island nation is the most likely reason for this. Eventually styles such as Cubism, Expressionism and Abstraction began to be taken seriously.