Nita Spilhaus (1878 - 1967)

Pauline Augusta Wilhelmina “Nita” Spilhaus was born in Lisbon, Portugal in 1878, and was raised by her grandfather in Lübeck, Germany after losing both her parents as an infant. She gained the essentials of drawing and etching by studying at the Lübeck School of Art, the Kunst Akademie in Munich, and the Thanlow Swedish Painting School in Paris.

Her move to Cape Town in 1907 introduced her to the wealth of artistic subject matter in South Africa, and she began to paint, draw and etch with enthusiasm. She joined the South African Society of Artists upon her arrival, and it was not long before the Cape Times paid tribute to her abilities as a graphic artist by publishing two sets of her etchings.

Among her circle of friends in the art world were many of the first Cape Impressionists such as Ruth Prowse, Hugo Naudé and Florence Zerffi. In the “stylistic characteristics of her paintings such as the linear accents of branches of leafless trees painted against opaque, sombre skies”, can be seen evidence of her close friendship with Pieter Wenning, and how his work influenced her style, can be seen (Borman and Siebrits, 2001).

Being a dedicated plein air landscape painter, the First World War was a difficult time for Spilhaus; being German speaking, she was house-bound to avoid the risk of internment, and she began to paint still life studies of flower arrangements in “a fresh, sparkling manner using clean, bright colours” (Borman and Siebrits, 2001). In the mid-1920s Spilhaus returned to Germany, living and working there until 1938, when she moved back to South Africa where she would remain until her death in Cape Town in 1967.

She participated in a number of group exhibitions in France, Germany, South Africa, the United Kingdom and Rhodesia, starting in 1900. In 1917 she had a joint exhibition with Pieter Wenning and Hugo Naudé, and in 1920, the first of several solo exhibitions was held in Johannesburg. 1923 saw another joint exhibition, this time with Ruth Prowse and Florence Zerffi.

Spilhaus felt a fascination with, and delight in, capturing the shape and nature of trees, and evidence of this can be seen through much of her work. She was based in harbour towns for most of her life – from her birth city of Lisbon to Cape Town – and thus harbour scenes were another integral part of her oeuvre.

According to Borman and Siebrits (2001), “Although there often seems to be a hint of romanticism in Nita Spilhaus’ work, the overwhelming sense of honesty and respect for the character of her subject prevents her painting from being sentimental”.


Berman, E. (1996). Art and Artists of South Africa, Southern Book Publishers: Western Cape, 627-628.

Wood Hunter, C. (2009). “Peter Willem Frederik Wenning” in South African Art Times.

Borman, J. and Siebrits, W. (1991). Aspects of South African Art 1903-1999, (catalogue no.1), Johans Borman and Warren Siebrits: Johannesburg, 7.

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