A painting for the Year of the Rabbit

It was painted in England by a New Zealander, but depictions of rabbits in art and culture are universal.

In the Chinese calendar, 2023 is the Year of the Rabbit. Within the Te Manawa collection are many heritage items and artworks featuring or themed around this iconic creature. 

By far the oldest is the oil painting Girl with a Rabbit, one of several works in our collection by New Zealand artist Mina Arndt. Its English subject gazes out at us placidly, her eyes deeply shaded beneath her hat. A white rabbit sits calmly in her lap. Who was this girl, and how did she come to be painted by someone from the far side of the world? 

Mina Arndt was born on an Otago estate in 1885. By her early 20s she had accumulated a broad artistic education. She’d studied in New Zealand, at multiple London art schools and, unusually for a New Zealander, in Berlin. Between 1907 and 1914 her time was divided between the German capital and Cornwall, down at the far southwestern tip of England. 

In Cornwall lay the post-impressionist Newlyn art school. When Arndt joined in either 1907 or 1908, the school was in its heyday. Both she and the other artists there had an interest in depicting everyday people. Painters such as Walter Langley and school founder Stanhope Forbes won renown for their realistic depictions of local life. Arndt, however, preferred a more expressionist approach with broader brushstrokes. In this she was likely influenced by her Berlin studies under German painter Lovis Corinth. 

We don’t have a firm date for when Arndt painted Girl with a Rabbit. The date in our collection is “circa 1913”; research suggests a period between 1909 and 1914. Similarly, we don’t know the exact identity of the girl with the rabbit. She would have lived in the rural area surrounding the town of Penzance. 

A young Edwardian woman in a pale dress and dark broad-brimmed hat cradles a white rabbit in her arms.Arndt sent some of her work back to New Zealand ahead of her permanent return in 1914. Girl with a Rabbit was first exhibited in Wellington in 1915. It appeared again at the annual exhibition of the Canterbury Society of Arts the following year.

Mina Arndt died in 1926. Though her work won accolades in Europe – some is still held by galleries in England and France – she did not begin to be properly recognised in New Zealand until the latter half of the 20th century. 

Arndt’s sister Edith, who had shared many of her travels, acquired Girl with a Rabbit after her death. Some time before 1956 she gifted it to the City of Palmerston North. It was displayed in the City Library, and joined the collection of the Palmerston North Art Gallery in 1967. Girl with a Rabbit has been hung twice at Te Manawa in recent years: as part of the collection rotation from 2018 to 2022, and again as part of the Ngā Whakaahua – Portraits exhibition in 2022. 

The painting is also viewable online, together with the entire art collection. Our viewable rabbit-themed heritage items are currently limited to toys and games, but their number is sure to multiply as the museum’s digitisation project progresses.