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Rita Angus, Cass.
One of Angus' best-known landscapes.
Rita Angus (12 March 1908 – 27 January 1970) was a New Zealandmarker painter. Along with Colin McCahon and Toss Woollaston she is credited with introducing modern styles to New Zealand art. She worked primarily in oil and water colour, and is well known for her portraits and landscapes.


Born Henrietta Catherine Angus in Hastingsmarker, Angus was the eldest of seven children of William McKenzie Angus and Ethel Violet Crabtree. In 1921 her family moved to Palmerston Northmarker and she attended Palmerston North Girls' High Schoolmarker between 1922 and 1926. There her talent for art was recognised and she was encouraged to pursue it further. In 1927 she began studying at the Canterbury Collegemarker School of Art.

She married Alfred Cook, another artist, on 13 June 1930, but in 1934 they separated due to incompatibility, and divorced in 1939. Angus signed many of her paintings as Rita Cook between 1930 and 1946, but after she discovered in 1941 that Alfred Cook had remarried she changed her surname by deed poll to McKenzie, her paternal grandmother's name. As a result, some of her paintings are also signed R. Mackenzie or R. McKenzie, but the majority are signed Rita Angus.

Angus lived mostly in Christchurchmarker during the 1930s and 1940s. She made a living by teaching painting and illustrating for the Christchurch Press Junior. In the late 1940s she suffered from mental illness and entered Sunnyside Mental Hospital in 1949. In 1950 she moved to Waikanaemarker to convalesce, and after some more travels around New Zealand she settled in Wellingtonmarker in 1955. She died in Wellington Hospital of ovarian cancer on 27 January 1970.


Among Rita Angus' influences were Byzantine art and cubism. She was also influenced by the English painter Christopher Perkins' 1931 painting of Mount Taranakimarker, a response to New Zealand's distinctive clear lighting.

Her landscapes came in a time when many people were concerned to create a distinctly New Zealand art, and the American regionalism movement was growing. Angus herself was not interested in defining a national style so much as her own style. Her paintings are clear, hard-edged and sharply-defined. In the 1930s and 1940s she painted scenes of Canterburymarker and Otago. One of the most famous of these is Cass (1936) in which she portrayed the bare emptiness of the Canterbury landscape. In the 1960s, settled in Wellington, her landscapes focused on this area. Boats, Island Bay is one such iconic painting.

Although perhaps best known for her landscapes, Angus also painted a large number of portraits. These include Head of a Maori Boy (1938) and Portrait (Betty Curnow) (1942). She was able to capture the personality of her subjects, moving beyond a mere representation of their form. Her many portraits of women expressed her feminist ideas. She also painted 55 self-portraits at different stages of her life, showing her passing years and changing emotions. Angus devoted much of 1960 to the painting of a mural at Napier Girls' High School which can now be seen at the front of the school hall.

Exhibitions and awards

  • 1930: exhibition with Canterbury Society of Arts
  • 1932: exhibition with The Group
  • 1940: Cass exhibited at the National Centennial Exhibition of New Zealand Art
  • 1957: Angus' first solo exhibition, at the Wellington Art Centre gallery
  • 1958: Association of New Zealand Art Society Fellowship allows Angus to travel to England and Europe for a year to study at the Chelsea School of Artmarker.
  • 5 July 2008: A major retrospective of the work of Rita Angus has opened at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewamarker before travelling to other main centres around New Zealand. The exhibition Rita Angus: Life and Vision celebrates the centenary of the artist's birth and features iconic works as well as works never before seen in public. The website supporting the exhibition features images of all the artworks in the exhibition, audio guides, podcasts of floor talks and radio interviews.


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