Stories in the paint: the making of Rutu

Stories in the paint: the making of Rutu

Rita Angus’s painting, Rutu, is one of Aotearoa New Zealand’s most iconic portraits. Here, Conservator Paintings Linda Waters reveals some of the hidden histories she learned while preparing Rutu for exhibition.

Rita Angus’s painting Rutu
Rita Angus, Rutu, 1951, oil on canvas. © Reproduced courtesy of the Estate of Rita Angus. Te Papa (1992-0025-1)

Last year in the paintings’ conservation laboratory we spent quite some time examining Rita Angus’ paintings in preparation for the current exhibition Rita Angus: New Zealand Modernist | He Ringatoi Hou o Aotearoa. We’ve seen first-hand her unrelenting perfectionism and extraordinary facility with paint. We have also been fully exposed to her highly skilled use of colour.

The paintings over which Angus has spent a lot of time reveal her perfectionist tendencies the most strongly. Rutu is one of these, along with Central Otago and Marjorie Marshall. We know from Angus’s letters that Rutu was painted over several years, from 1946 to 1951, and there are clues within the paint that show the adjustments that she made as she worked on it over this time. The painting is so ‘clean’ and well resolved – both compositionally and in terms of colour – that it is a surprise to discover the alterations. We found that Angus had actually refined and ‘tightened’ the colour balance by altering the Goddess’s halo and top. The evidence is not immediately obvious but was seen using the tools and techniques we have in the Conservation laboratory. Let me explain…

All the paintings that came through the laboratory in preparation for the exhibition were subject to close examination. We looked at them with the naked eye and under magnification using stereo-microscopy, with infra-red to see beneath the paint, and finally with a very fine X-ray beam using portable x-ray fluorescence (pXRF) to ascertain the pigments Angus used. It is largely the latter, married with excerpts from Rita’s letters published in Jill Trevelyan’s book Rita Angus: An Artist’s Life, that show how the painting of Rutu progressed in the studio, and how it reached the final form we see today.

When analysing the halo with pXRF, we found a very high reading for cadmium, suggesting a bright colour like cadmium yellow. This was at odds with the duller tan paint on the surface, which prompted us to look at the paint again with even higher magnification. There, between the brushstrokes, we saw a layer of bright, ‘egg-yolk’ yellow with a little carmine-pink – the halo in its first rendition. We could also see that the maroon-brown border had been modified with a very precise application of cooler, slightly paler purple (fig. 1).

We were alerted to the change in the colour of the jersey by a note from 1948 recorded in Jill’s book.[1] The initial lighter red colour could be seen near the neckline under the final darker red (fig. 2).

Two close-ups of the painting Rutu showing the paint lines
Fig. 1 (left) – Detail of the right side of the halo showing the overpainting of the border.
Fig. 2 (right) – The neck of the jersey where the original lighter red paint layer can be seen.
Photos by Maarten Holl. Te Papa

Photographer Maarten Holl skilfully used Photoshop to recreate the colours we found. He produced images of the two earlier stages of the painting, pre and post 1947, alongside the final painting (fig. 3).

Three versions of the painting Rutu
Fig. 3 – The three iterations of Rutu, with the yellow halo and lighter jersey in 1946, the tan halo and same lighter jersey in 1947, and the darker red jersey in 1948 – the version we see today.

We can only speculate as to why the colours were changed: my colleague Tijana thinks that the halo may have been changed to better differentiate it from the blond hair, and I thought that the jersey might have been darkened in response to this change, to ‘balance’ the composition. On repainting Rutu’s jersey, Rita notes that ‘she is more beautiful, more dignity’.[2]

In this exploration of Rutu in the conservation laboratory, we have uncovered but one manifestation of Rita’s painstaking process and commitment to her vision. There are more to unpack. Among Te Papa’s current offerings is a celebration of Central Otago in large scale digital footage shown in the first gallery of the exhibition. I will explore the evolution of Rita’s painting technique in a talk on 13 February, where I will focus on the eyes in her portraits.

Footnotes

  1. Jill Trevelyan, Rita Angus: An Artist’s Life, Te Papa Press, Wellington, 2008, p. 195
  2. cit., p. 199

Leave a comment