Audio description of Rita Angus’s ‘Cleopatra’, 1938

Rita Angus, Cleopatra, 1938, oil on canvas. Purchased 1998 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa (1998-0028-2)


Cleopatra is an oil painting on canvas, painted in 1938. It’s part of Te Papa’s art collection. It’s 38cm wide and 46cm high.

Rita once wrote that she had been born at the time the Egyptian tombs were opened. She was fascinated by the ancient Egyptian civilisation, and intrigued by Cleopatra specifically as a woman wielding power.

In this three-quarter-length portrait, painted when she was 30 years old, Rita is a Cleopatra for the modern age. She takes the Egyptian queen’s name, and theatrically positions herself as if she is a flat figure on an Egyptian mural. Her body is almost front-on to us, but her head is in profile, facing to her right.

Rather than painting herself exactly as we would see her in person, this portrait is very crisp and sharp. Rita’s figure is flat, almost outlined, with distinctive clear colours. This is a very modern style of portrait – it feels fresh and powerful.

The background is a bright, fresh green, showing something of the texture of the canvas.

Rita glances our way with a somewhat quizzical, amused expression. Her eye looks both out at us and straight ahead. Her mouth is closed, darkened by bold red lipstick, and emphasised by a slight shimmer of lighter green in the background close by.

In another nod to the classical Egyptian pose, her right arm bends up at the elbow and back at the wrist, holding her hand out towards the edge of the frame, palm upwards. Her little finger and one other curve back in over her palm, but that’s all. The others are cropped off at the edge of the canvas. Our Te Papa conservators noted the paint in this area, usually so smooth in Rita’s oil paintings, looked a bit rougher. They examined the painting under infrared light and saw her initial drawing in charcoal or pencil, in which Rita’s hand seems to be holding a smoking cigarette. The artist had painted this part over.

Rita’s browny hair hangs to neck length. Paint in darker and lighter tones shapes and sculpts its wavy texture. One curl flicks high over her fair forehead to her left brow. A narrow, lighter green glow in the background sweeps around and accentuates the shape of her head and the colours in her hair.

She wears a pale green, sleeveless dress that’s cut sharply back from the underarm to the high collar line. The crescent curves of her bare shoulders stand out against the background, and darker skin tones create light shadows that highlight her clavicles.

The collar falls in long, thin triangles. It’s fastened with one of three large white buttons, evenly spaced down the front of the dress.