Track 3: ‘Peace and paint’ gallery

I have never lost my faith in my painting, my work, as a child or an adult, in sickness or health, success or failure, peace or war …
Rita Angus

Rita was a committed pacifist, actively opposed to World War II (1939–45). She believed her art could help construct a peaceful future, and took inspiration from music, nature, family, and friends.  

Self-portrait, 1947

is a watercolour on paper. It’s on loan to Te Papa from the Rita Angus Estate. It’s 24cm wide by 29cm high. 

This half-length portrait, painted when Rita was 39, has an open simplicity to it. The artist is entirely and intentionally the focus and substance of the painting. She offers herself as the primary sense and feel of the work. She presents herself honestly, as if for us to study, as if she has closely studied herself to capture her features and expression with such precision.

Rita fills most of the frame, placing herself against a neutral yet softly textured background. She wears a plain, blue, round-necked jumper, with a hint of soft texture to it, as if it’s been worn and worn and washed, and the wool fibres have softened. 

Her dark-blonde hair is parted firmly in the middle, and a straight hairclip holds her curls high off her forehead on her right, with another out of view holding it up on her left. It falls loose in tumbling, almost touchable soft curls to her shoulders.

Her forehead is creased across with light-red lines and vertical ones that rise between her eyebrows, which sweep in a dark curve above her brown eyes. Her cheekbones and long nose are shaded to hold their distinctive forms. Her skin is fair but warm. Rita often used surprising colours. Here, she’s used a pale green to create shadows that highlight the contours of her face.

This is one of the first works where the artist signs her name Rita Angus again, instead of her married name, Rita Cook, which she’d used since 1932. She’d divorced in 1939.  

This painting was featured in the 1947 Year Book of the Arts in New Zealand. In her artist’s statement, Rita wrote ‘as a woman painter’ and said, ‘I endeavour to record the alive, constructive and courteous spirit of the age’. 


This watercolour on paper is 28cm wide by 25cm high. It’s part of Te Papa’s art collection. 

A lone, leafless tree stands, almost seems to float, in the centre of the painting. Rita sketched for this work in Greymouth, where she was staying alone in the spring of 1943. There was a cherry tree in the front garden.

The tree emerges, just seems to appear, growing up from a featureless beige foreground that takes up the lower third of the work. 

The tree’s smooth brown trunk curves a little to the left then realigns as it stretches up in front of low and softly formed, distant blue hills – as if it’s been growing here a while and shaped its growth to something that happened here seasons ago.

Branches extend from the top of the trunk, thinning and forking as they spread across the paper. The delicate yet somehow energetic, stark lines of smaller twigs cascade out and down, the whole forming a shape like a huge, irregular, line-filled umbrella.

Little buds of spring growth stud the criss-crossing lines, all tiny but standing out in silhouette against the pale sky like beads threaded along a string. 

Three small, dark birds perch high in the tree, all facing different ways, as if they’re about to hop about or take flight or sing. 

Douglas Lilburn

This three-quarter-length portrait is watercolour on paper, 34cm wide by 44cm high. It’s on loan to Te Papa from the Rita Angus Estate.

It was painted in 1945. Rita met composer and musician Douglas Lilburn in 1941. They developed a brief romantic relationship, followed by an enduring friendship. Rita would often write to him about the connections between his work as a composer and her paintings. She talked about the colours of the painting as being linked to the music he was creating. 

Rita wrote to Douglas that this was ‘an intimate portrait’. It is delicate in colour and line, with an overall sense of softness and affection. She’s painted him as if he’s right next to her, to us. Away in the distance, there’s a scene familiar to both of them: the coastline below her cottage on Clifton Hill in Christchurch. It is a bright, still, lightly cloudy day.

Douglas was 30 years old when Rita painted him. He looks away to his right, a steady, thoughtful gaze from pale eyes. He has short, fair hair with a tumble of soft curls high across his fair-skinned forehead. Thin, white vertical lines on the rounded lenses of his plain framed glasses indicate glints of sunlight. Rita uses pale, soft whites to show how light falls on the right side of his face, and warmer tones on the other. He’s wearing an open-necked, casual white shirt. Soft blues and yellows outline its form and folds.

Behind Douglas, the softly paint-washed sky takes up the top quarter of the paper. It meets the sea below along a deep-purple horizon. There’s a curve of tussocky beach to our left. The sea splashes lightly blue onto the sandy shore. 

Self-portrait (with moth and caterpillar)

This three-quarter pencil and watercolour portrait on paper is a work in progress, started in 1943 when Rita was 35 but never completed. It’s 25cm wide by 35cm high, on loan to Te Papa from the Rita Angus Estate.

Rita stands on the sandy beach at Clifton in Christchurch. The sea curves in from the right and away behind her to the far hills. 

Paint’s only been applied so far to the upper half of the paper, and then not to everything. For the rest of the work, we must decipher her intent from the light pencil strokes that outline some basic forms, like the rest of her body as she faces us with her arms by her sides.

She has painted the pale sky with a low bank of white clouds across the top, and the distant hills with low mist, or perhaps smoke, rising from the valleys. 

She has painted her head, neck, and the pale blue collar of a shirt that’s underneath her jumper. Her fully painted face holds a powerful presence, vivid against the soft colours of the sky, the white of the paper, and the sketchy pencil marks.

Her golden hair is held off her fair-skinned forehead with a clip high on each side. She looks steadily away to her right – a contemplative gaze, perhaps slightly downcast. Many of her friends remarked on how accurate the portrait was.

Her jumper is still an outline, with a rounded-petal flower sketched on the front. But there are two splashes of colour on her right shoulder. A green caterpillar crawls along on two sets of tiny feet. Lower, a moth lies with four pinky-red outstretched wings, but its probing antennae still just pencilled in. The gentle pencil outline of a short, sinuous snake moves up her left shoulder. 

Further down the shore, beyond Rita’s left shoulder, there’s a figure of a young woman facing us. Rita had begun to paint her. She has brown hair, brown eyes, and brown skin, and a top and skirt in brown and purple. Her bare legs and feet are just drawn in pencil. So are her arms, with one hand holding the top of the long handle of a spade. 

Other than a small section of water where it meets the sand behind Rita’s shoulder, the rest of the sea and the shore remain blank paper still – except for a few faint marks pencilling indistinct shapes on the sand.


This is an oil painting on canvas, 56cm wide by 71cm high. It’s part of Te Papa’s art collection. Planned and painted over about five years, it was finished in 1951. 

This is one of Rita’s three goddess works, which bring life to her vision for a pacifist, multicultural future in New Zealand. She believed these three goddesses to be among the major works of her lifetime and often described Rutu as her child. 

Rutu is a painting of a woman in a coastal Pacific setting. She sits at ease on a chair, surrounded by lush foliage, on a rise with her back to the ocean. Behind her shoulders, the light-blue sky meets the dark-blue sea along a featureless horizon. A large, deep-yellow circle with a strong, dark outline – the sun, or a halo perhaps – frames her head against the sky. She’s almost life-size. Her body turns a little to her right. She cradles a waterlily just above her lap where the painting ends.

Although the figure in Rutu does look like Rita, in her letters to her friend Douglas Lilburn, she wrote that she thought about the painting as an imaginary portrait rather than a self-portrait.

Rutu, this woman of Rita’s imagination, has smooth, quite dark-brown skin, and strikingly – almost artificially bright – yellow hair. It sits high above her forehead and falls in long, wide strands over her shoulders, where it spreads out. Unlike her other portraits, it doesn’t have the texture of hair. It falls instead as flat lengths – almost like cut-out fabric.

She seems serene. Perhaps it is her steady gaze from blue-grey eyes, looking out to her right, and her gently closed mouth. She wears a red, close-fitting, short-sleeved top. It has a deep scoop neck trimmed with a dark panel decorated with three little golden fish swimming across it to our left. The top is tucked into the waistband of a rich blue-purple skirt.

The tips of her long, fine index fingers, and thumbs behind, gently hold the outer petals of a large, creamy-white waterlily flower above her lap, with its long, green stem stretching below.

Lines of white, curling breakers meet the shore behind her shoulders. From here on either side, there’s a line of spiky vegetation, then tall palm trees. Red-leafed shrubs frame either side of the seat she’s on. She sits up straight but at ease on a wide wooden chair painted with red and black stripes, and brown rounded shapes.