Audio description of Rita Angus’s ‘Self-portrait with moth and caterpillar’, 1943

Rita Angus, Self-portrait (with moth and caterpillar) 1943, pencil and watercolour. Gift of the Rita Angus Estate, in memory of William McAloon 2022. Te Papa (2022-0001-2)


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.