Rita Angus’s compelling Portrait of Betty Curnow resulted from numerous preparatory sittings and discussions about portraiture. The two women collaborated by selecting the objects and costume which would best depict Curnow, her family life and her history. The items surrounding Curnow are imbued with personal symbolism. She is close to her family, seated on her grandmother’s chair before her father’s portrait. Her husband poet Allen Curnow’s presence is apparent through his many books. She holds her son Wystan’s trousers, which she was mending. A watercolour by Angus, which was a gift to the family, leans on the shelf. It refers to Curnow’s Canterbury childhood. Both the print of Jan Brueghel’s harvest scene and the repeating ovoid shapes allude to fertility. This portrait’s charisma has made it an emblem of New Zealand painting.

See more detail about this artwork


  • Title: Portrait of Betty Curnow
  • Creator: Rita Angus
  • Creator Lifespan: 1908 - 1970
  • Creator Nationality: New Zealand
  • Creator Gender: Female
  • Creator Death Place: Wellington, New Zealand
  • Creator Birth Place: Hastings, New Zealand
  • Date Created: 1942
  • Physical Dimensions: w647 x h775 mm (Without frame)
  • Conservation notes: Rita Angus worked from preparatory drawings, which she transferred with the aid of a grid to the canvas. The outline and shadows would then be marked out in oil, before the blocking in of the colours took place. Sometimes changes would occur during the painting process, such as the repositioning of the hand, only visible under the edge of the frame. The oil paint is mostly opaque and applied in small parallel strokes, creating a sharp clarity. The feathering of solid colours over a lighter background creates a sense of three-dimensional form. The colours include a brilliant manganese blue, which had only recently become available as an artist’s colour. Angus later preferred to paint on smooth hardboard and create a greater transparency in her paint with the addition of copal resin.
  • Artist biography: Rita Angus, born in 1928, was one of New Zealand’s first full-time women artists. In a 1947 profile in the Year Book of the Arts in New Zealand she spoke of her work: ‘As a woman painter, I work to represent love of humanity and faith in mankind in a world, which is to me, richly variable and infinitely beautiful. I endeavour to record the alive, constructive and courteous spirit of the age. My paintings express a desire to unite with a great many artists everywhere, as well as groups in all arts, so as to create a living freedom from the afflicting theme of death.’ She died in 1970.
  • Type: Painting
  • Rights: Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, purchased 1970
  • External Link: Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki
  • Medium: oil on canvas

Additional Items

Portrait of Betty Curnow (Supplemental)

Portrait of Betty Curnow (Supplemental)

Get the app

Explore museums and play with Art Transfer, Pocket Galleries, Art Selfie, and more

Flash this QR Code to get the app
Google apps