Colin McCahon ‘Portrait (Anne McCahon)’

Peter Simpson
Posted on 7 March 2024

This powerful portrait is prominently signed and dated (August 1956), but was untitled by the artist. Never exhibited in his lifetime, it has always been identified since entering the art market (initially through McCahon’s Wellington dealer, Peter McLeavey) as a portrait of Anne McCahon, Colin’s wife since 1942 and mother of four children – a distinguished artist and illustrator in her own right. Born Anne Hamblett in 1915 (died 1993), she was 40 when the picture was painted.

Portraits are probably not the first mode thought of in connection with McCahon, as compared to landscapes or abstractions or text paintings. But he produced interesting portraits throughout much of his career, from 1939 (Elespie Forsyth) onwards, though there were none later than Portrait of Gordon H. Brown (1968). Most of his 30 or so portraits (the number depends on how, precisely, ‘portrait’ is defined) belong to the 1940s and 1950s. They came in several different media, including drawings in pen, pencil and ink brush, watercolours, gouaches, acrylics and oil paints.

Of portraits in oils there are around 15, give or take one or two depending on definition. Several different categories are discernible: 1) Portraits of named persons, such as Elespie Forsyth (1940), Harriet Simeon (1945), Anne, abstract (1947) and Portrait of Victoria (1957). 2) Portraits of known but unnamed individuals such as Woman in Chair (1947) [probably Anne McCahon], Portrait [Peter Webb] (1955) and the present work. 3) Portraits of unnamed and anonymous individuals such as Singing Women (1945-46), Head (1954) and Singing woman on pink ground (1955). 4) A rather loose category (arguably not ‘portraits’ at all) is figure paintings where the intention is less representational than symbolic, mythical or historical, for example, Listener (1947), I, Paul (1949), and The Eagle (1950). Whatever their category McCahon’s portraits are all strikingly different from each other in manner – he never repeated himself.

Colin McCahon

Portrait (Anne McCahon)

oil on board

signed and dated ‘Aug. ’56’

543 x 470mm

$180 000 – $260 000


Colin McCahon Database ( cm000856.


Collection of Maurie Boyd, Wellington. Purchased from Peter McLeavey Gallery, Wellington.

Private collection, Christchurch. Purchased from Dunbar Sloane, Wellington, 21 July 2010, Lot No. II.

View lot here

The mid 1950s, when the McCahon were living in Titirangi and Colin was working at Auckland City Art Gallery, were one of the most active periods for portrait-making. In addition to Portrait (1956), there is Portrait (1955), of gallerist and auctioneer Peter Webb (a colleague at ACAG), Singing Woman on pink ground (a visiting Australian soprano,1955), and Portrait of Victoria (his daughter, 1957). There was also Portrait of the Artist’s Daughter (probably Catherine, 1955), a gouache and watercolour, and several pencil drawings of his children, too.

McCahon depicted his wife Anne on several occasions, especially in the early years of their marriage; from 1942–47 there were half a dozen portraits of her in various media. The 1956 work is a decade or more later than other examples. The artist presents here a mature woman with short-cropped hair, seen only from the neck up; alert and focussed in expression she engages the viewer directly with a steady and intelligent gaze. Deliberate stylisation removes the portrait from mere ‘likeness’, straight naturalist representation. In some respects it resembles elements in other Titirangi-period paintings; for example, horizontal and rectangular features (the rectangular strip in the top left corner, the straight eyebrows) are pervasive in the French Bay series; while the exaggerated roundness of cheeks and chin recalls circular details in Titirangi Kauri paintings; and the long straight nose is similar to the tall, narrow kauri ‘rickers’ prominent in the period. The somewhat sombre ‘winterish’ colour range of the painting, too – white, grey, various shades of ochre, a murky green, brown, black – is similar to several French Bay paintings of August-September, 1956.

A further feature of the painting worth noting is the subtle integration through colour of the figure with its abstract but not uniform background. The colours are muted rather than bright and change in hue as the eye moves around the painting. Similar variations from pale to dark tones of varying intensities are seen in the sitter’s features.

Altogether it is a striking painting with great presence, surely one of McCahon’s strongest portraits.

Peter Simpson