Audio description of Anne Rice’s ‘Portrait of Katherine Mansfield’, 1918

Listen to an audio description of Anne Rice’s lush painting of her friend, writer Katherine Mansfield.

Anne Rice, Portrait of Katherine Mansfield, 1918, oil on canvas. Purchased 1940 with T G Macarthy Trust funds. Te Papa (1940-0009-1)


This is an oil painting of New Zealand-born writer Katherine Mansfield, by Anne Estelle Rice. Anne was American, born 1877, died 1959.

The painting is 52cm wide and 65 and a half cm high. It was purchased in 1940 with T G Macarthy Trust funds.

I’ll use Katherine’s perspective to navigate the painting.

Katherine, 29 years old, sits in an armchair against a pinkish-red interior background, her head at the top of the work, and her hands folded across a closed book on her lap at the bottom.

Anne had invited her writer friend to stay in Cornwall, to keep her company and nourish her failing health. She and Katherine had met in Paris in 1912.

We know Katherine sat for the painting on 17 June, 1918, because she wrote later that day to her husband John Middleton Murry:

“I feel ever so greatly better to-day. I had a good night. Oh, a good one! A. [that’s Anne] came early and began the great painting – me in that red, brick red frock with flowers everywhere. It's awfully interesting even now. I painted her in my way as she painted me in hers: her eyes … little blue flowers plucked this morning …”.[1]

Anne was a modernist painter – rather than a creating a fully detailed image, she uses her paint colours and techniques to highlight essential form, lines and colours, to capture the essence of Katherine. She confidently conjures bold contrasting colours like red and green alongside each other, her technique is vigorous, and she was unconcerned with ‘finish’.

Katherine, a modernist artist herself, only with words, once wrote to Anne: “what a marvellous painter you are – the beauty of your line – the life behind it".[2]

Katherine sits front on with her head turned a little to her right, her dark brown eyes, under dark curved brows, gaze steadily and intently out in that direction.

Her right shoulder is a little lower, as she’s tucked her bent right elbow back in between her body and the solid arm of the chair. The form of the chair is mostly indicated by shape and shadow. Its back is a darker area behind the sitter, and her left elbow is held slightly above its left arm.

Katherine’s dark brown hair is cut in her trademark bob at the front. The stern fringe line has just a few hairs out of place near the centre, revealing a slender triangle of pale white brow.

A wide-sculpted curl tucks forward onto each cheek in front of each ear. The rest of Katherine’s locks are piled and pinned up high across her crown.

Anne uses different tones of brown, with varied brush strokes, to sculpt the fringe sleeked down across the forehead, the perky dark curls against the pale white skin, and the constrained hair across the top of the head.

The light slants in across the right side of Katherine’s face. Anne’s used tones of green across Katherine’s left brow and cheek and below, across the skin on that side of her neck and under her chin, to create the sense of shadow.

Katherine’s mouth with scarlet lipstick, is closed, red paint in several tones, applied with careful brush strokes outlines and fills its shape like a cupid’s bow.

Katherine once wrote “I am a very MODERN (in capitals) woman. I like Life (with a capital L) in my clothes”.[3] “That red, brick red frock” is a powerful presence in the painting. That red is a vibrant and intense colour Katherine and Anne both loved, and agreed would suit this portrait.

The frock has a plain square neckline, framing Katherine’s pale white neck with the green cast of shadow. Long, fitting sleeves, with no cuffs nor detail. Darker red paint and black pencil marks reveal how the fabric curves and creases around Katherine’s seated form.

Anne’s applied the red lightly in places, leaving some parts of the raw canvas underneath showing through, offering a sense of the feel of the fabric and how its colour changes where the light hits it.

Katherine sits with her right knee crossed over her left. The left hand rests on the right, which holds a small blocky orange rectangle on her lap. Nothing outlines a spine, it has no lettered title, but what else would this shape be but a book, a powerful symbol of a writer’s work.

Her hands are also presented as shapes, greyish in colour, with minimal detail, just some changes in colour tracing their forms. They almost seem to be unfinished.

There aren’t flowers ‘everywhere’ exactly as Katherine wrote, but floral forms in white, yellow and shades of red and blue, cascade down, filling most of the space between Katherine’s right side and the edge of the painting. Their circular shapes, bold swirls, blotches, and spheres of paint, jostle together like a blooming crowd above a green cylinder vase on a green-topped table alongside Katherine’s right upper arm.

There’s a vigour and lively looseness to their forms, a pink one’s edges even spill a little across the line of her right shoulder.

Above and around Katherine’s left shoulder, two white flowers, on short stalks with two green leaves each, seem to hover on the red toned background. There’s part of another near the bare skin of that side of her neck, and one in the lower right corner.

Probably they’re wallpaper decorations, although maybe Anne was just painting flowers ‘everywhere’ as she and Katherine had discussed. Katherine loved flowers, she recalled them as the “only companions” of her childhood and she wrote flowers, reflecting her close observation of their colours, textures and shapes, and fragrances.[4]

The artist’s written her signature in black, across Katherine’s right knee, at the lower left side of the painting. Anne (with an e) Estelle Rice – followed a space or two later by a full stop.

[1] John Middleton Murry (ed.), The letters of Katherine Mansfield: Volume I (London, 1930), p. 203.

[2] Vincent O’Sullivan and Margaret Scott (ed.s), The collected letters of Katherine Mansfield. Volume 4 (Oxford, 1984-2008), p. 152.

[3] Margaret Scott, Recollecting Mansfield (Auckland, 2001), p. 30.

[4] J. Middleton Murry and Ruth Elvish Mantz, The life of Katherine Mansfield (London, 1933), p. 105.