In this excerpt from The Back of the Painting, a new book from Te Papa Press that takes a literal look behind the scenes of famous paintings in New Zealand galleries, Conservator Paintings Linda Waters uncovers a mystery: the unfinished portrait of a young boy.
The back of a painting can hold the most delightful surprises. In the case of Wilhelm Dittmer’s portrait of Rangitupu Taketake, Taketake (Wanganui chief), there is a rather significant one: a disarming and spontaneous painting of a young Māori boy is upside down on the reverse of the board.
Painted with broad loose strokes, assured and direct – very few lines have been used – this painted ‘sketch’ was revealed in 2018 when the painting was in the conservation laboratory being prepared by my colleague Tijana Cvetkovic for exhibition in Toi Art, the redesigned art exhibition space at Te Papa. We were then able to unpack the story of this board by looking at other features on the back in conjunction with those under the paint on the front.
The board, used by Dittmer around 1904, is a type called ‘academy board’, chosen by artists for its easy portability and lower cost compared with canvas. A commercially prepared painting surface, academy board was available from the midnineteenth century onwards and was made from dense cardboard which was primed on the front and typically painted a matte grey on the reverse. Variations of it are still manufactured today. The missing label, now at the top of the back of this painting, as the board has been turned, would have stated the manufacturer’s name: it may have been Winsor & Newton, or Reeves & Sons, or G Rowney & Co. – all were well known English artists’ suppliers at the time Dittmer was painting.
An ink inscription written on the back (most likely by museum personnel and a practice certainly not condoned today) refers to the page in a book that featured a photograph of Taketake.1
Rebecca Rice, Curator Historical New Zealand Art at Te Papa, explains that Rangitupu Taketake of Ngāti Ruaka was well known in Whanganui, and that he was a favourite subject of local photographer William Partington. She believes that the painting was not copied from the photo in the book by Edward Tregear noted in the inscription, but rather from a similar one now in the National Library collection in which Taketake is wearing a cloak more akin to the one in this painting.2
We can see other inscriptions on the back – one painted in white and the other written in pen – which are early catalogue numbers. Look even more closely at the reverse and you can see dark drips of paint over the face of the boy – an important clue in unlocking the narrative of how the painting was made.
The story begins with varnish removal. A very thick, glossy varnish on the painting applied some decades ago made it very difficult to see the detail in the portrait – it needed to be removed. After Tijana cleaned the varnish from the surface we were able to see the texture of the paint and noticed some uncharacteristically thick and ‘heavy’ passages. Our curiosity was aroused.
The first stop, as it were, was to examine the painting in raking light. This glances the surface at an angle and shows any texture more strongly. Our examination revealed that the thickness in the paint was due to brushstrokes completely unrelated to the figure of Taketake. These strokes suggested the possibility of a horizon line if the board were turned sideways, which would indicate a landscape. Was there another painting underneath? Tijana took images using infra-red photography to penetrate the paint surface. She found nothing to suggest a fully painted landscape but she did find a grid of pencil lines, commonly used to facilitate copying, under the paint. (Artists draw a grid over an image they want to copy and also draw one on their canvas; the shapes in each square are then easily replicated to create the copied image.) In this instance we know that the source of the copy is likely to be a photograph.
Thus we realised from looking under the paint that Dittmer had used the board prior to painting the portrait of Taketake. He had painted the beginnings of something that looked like a landscape, then turned the board over to paint a quick sketch of a boy on the back. The paint spatters over the boy’s face suggest that he then left the panel lying about the studio for a time before picking it up to paint the portrait of Taketake. As we have seen, it is quite common for artists to re-use their canvases or other supports for reasons of economy or other practicalities, and Dittmer’s board certainly speaks of this practice.
Tracing the features on the reverse of the portrait together with features from under the paint brings alive the artist’s practice in his studio Dittmer was in New Zealand only for a short time, from 1898 to 1905, and was based in Whanganui where he had a very active studio from 1903 to 1904. Rebecca Rice notes that he opened his studio to the public in June 1904 to showcase his sketches of Māori and local scenery. Perhaps the portrait of the young boy was a spontaneous sketch of a visitor?
Taketake (Whanganui chief) is currently on display in the portrait gallery in Tūrangawaewae: Art in New Zealand.
See the back of Flora Scales’ Anemones in The Back of the Painting in Toi Art, Level 5.
- Edward Tregear, The Maori Race, AMS Press, New York, 1973.
- William Henry Thomas Partington (1854–1940), ‘Unidentified Maori man – Photograph taken by William Henry Partington’, about 1900, ref: 1/1-039838-G, Christopher Anderson Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library.