Rita Angus
Goddess of Mercy
Central Otago
Betty Curnow
Leo Bensemann
Self portrait

Henrietta (Rita) Catherine Angus was born in Hastings on March 12 1908, the eldest of seven children. Her mother, Ethel Violet Crabtree grew up in Tasmania, where she received instruction in watercolour at a private school. Her father, William McKenzie Angus, was born in Central Otago. Orphaned as a child, he went on to head his own construction company after leaving school at the age of 10.

The family moved frequently during Rita's childhood, mainly between Palmerston North and Napier. Her gift for drawing was recognised early, and she was given painting lessons while still at primary school. Deeply impressed by the work of Vermeer and CÚzanne even as a schoolgirl, in 1927 Rita Angus began studying at the Canterbury College of Fine Art. While she was a diligent student during her first two years, she abandoned the four-year teaching diploma in 1930, when she married fellow artist Alfred Cook.

Even though the Cooks had no children, Rita soon found her creativity stifled by the expectation that she should adopt a more supportive domestic role after her marriage, and she and Alfred separated in 1934 on the grounds of incompatibility, divorcing in 1939.

Angus was transient during the years that followed, moving frequently between the Christchurch, upper South Island, Wellington and Napier regions. She often suffered poor health as she struggled to survive on the income from her painting, a string of part-time and temporary illustrating and teaching jobs and small gifts from her mother. In 1950 she suffered a severe physical and mental breakdown, and spent some time in Sunnyside psychiatric hospital, followed by a long period of convalescence at her parents' home in Waikanae, north of Wellington. In 1953, she lived briefly in Mangonui, Northland after her parents moved back to Napier, but returned permanently to Wellington in 1954.

In 1958, Angus spent a year in Europe, courtesy of a New Zealand Art Societies' Fellowship, and on her return was commissioned to paint a mural to celebrate the Centenary of Napier Girls' High School, which she worked on for most of 1960. Her work continued to gain recognition both in New Zealand and internationally until her death on 26 January 1970.

From her secondary school days, it was evident that portraiture, figure studies and landscapes were of prime interest to Angus. She was a systematic artist, favouring the reduction of complicated forms to a simplified mass, at times adopting methods close to a very modified cubism. Angus painted no less than 55 self-portraits during her 40-year career, reflecting both her technical and spiritual journeys. The self-portraits also indicate a search for identity, evident in Angus's use of different names during her career. She continued to sign some of her paintings Rita Cook until her ex husband's remarriage, after which she frequently adopted her paternal grandmother's surname - signing her work and referring to herself as Rita Mackenzie or Mrs Mackenzie. However, the majority of her works are signed Rita Angus.


Text based on a Biographical Essay by Janet Paul, from 'Rita Angus', published in 1982 by the National Art Gallery, New Zealand.

Illustrations from 'Rita Angus', published in 1982 by the National Art Gallery, New Zealand.