Audio description of Rita Angus’s ‘Rutu’, 1951

Rita Angus, Rutu, 1951, oil on canvas. Purchased 1992 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa (1992-0025-1)


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.