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Does a Perkins’ portrait paint a picture of modern love?

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This 1931 portrait is of Annette Stiver and was purchased for the region’s collection by patrons of MTG Museum, Tai Aruriri.

Annette came to New Zealand as the wife of Michael Stiver, an American businessman who came here to work for the publicity firm J. Walter Thompson. When they arrived in the country, the Stivers instantly connected with local literati, becoming great friends with Christopher Perkins and his wife.

Christopher Perkins had emigrated from Britain as part of the La Trobe scheme, a programme designed to raise the standard of art education in New Zealand. Perkins taught that artists should base their work on local subject matter and was the first to advocate faithfulness to New Zealand’s unique atmospheric light. He was also known for layering his subjects with symbolic meaning.

Annette Stiver was a stylish intelligent woman and Perkins, renowned for his frustration with what he saw as New Zealand’s parochial attitude, must have seen her as the embodiment of cosmopolitan charm. The Stivers supported Perkins as an artist, buying his paintings and Michael commissioned this portrait of his wife.

Douglas Lloyd Jenkins and Eloise Taylor both provide intricate details of Annette Stiver’s life and her time in New Zealand. They write that there was a close, intimate relationship between Christopher Perkins and Annette Stiver.

Taylor writes that Annette sat for this portrait in Perkins’ Kelburn studio. The flowers, she notes, came from his garden, and the rattan chair was ‘bought down from the kitchen upstairs.’

Lloyd Jenkins suggests that the scarlet robe Annette wears, the calla lilies (a symbol of both purity and sexuality), and Stiver’s distracted fidgeting with her wedding ring finger all point to undercurrents of ‘Modern Love.’ But to be fair, Stiver’s ring finger is not visible in the painting, and Annette seems simply too unaffected for this to be a portrait ‘outing’ her love tryst.

Stiver kept the portrait until her death. If it was an image of her nervously reflecting on her infidelities, would she have held it so dear? It is more likely, Perkins’ portrait is about love, pure, carnal, adoring, enthusiastic – love.

Perkins’ has arranged the set precisely, he has dressed her, placed the props, and composed the scene to maximise its symbolic meaning.

Look at the robe – it sits awkwardly yet envelops her, its redness a symbol of love and with her elbows resting on the chair arms a heart shape is created.

Perkins attended the Slade School of Fine Arts with the likes of Dora Carrington, Paul Nash, and Stanley Spencer in the first decade of the 1900s. The strong physicality that Perkins gives Stiver is characteristic of this group of painters. Such an emphasis objectifies and distances us emotionally from her.

Stiver looks away from us toward the window, her face illuminated by its light, her gaze cast further afield. Is Perkins alluding to Stivers’ life in America and Europe, painting her as the independent urbanite?

This is a portrait of adoration so amped up that Perkins’ does not stop short of giving Stiver a beatific expression reminiscent of the Madonna. Calla lilies which droop sensually on the left, are reflected more chastely in the mirror on her right.

In this context, even the yellowed rattan chair chosen by Perkins seems to elevate her, a stand in for a throne or simply a hint of gold. Though now housed in a white frame, the Stivers originally framed the portrait in gold, a final adulating touch.

We might wonder what Annette’s husband thought of the work, and perhaps we would be mistaken to attribute the love that is implied in the portrait, to Perkins. Isn’t it more likely that this commissioned portrait is about Michael’s love for his wife?

You can view ‘Portrait of Annette Stiver’ at the MTG in Pictures and Other Works; A decade of MTG Foundation exhibitions, on until 3 June 2024.

Published in the Hawke’s Bay Today newspaper 13 January 2023 and written by Toni MacKinnon, Art Curator at MTG Hawke’s Bay.

Image: Portrait of Annette Stiver 1931, by Christopher Perkins (b.1891, d.1968). Purchased by Friends of the Hawke’s Bay Cultural Trust. Collection of the Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, [72621].

15 January 2024

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