Nora Heysen – Driven and Purposeful
Written by Janelle Hatherly and Barbara Wintringham
Nora Heysen was the fourth of eight children. Born in 1911, her German-born father, Hans Heysen, was a successful landscape artist and gifted painter of the Australian bush and, to this day, is one of Australia’s best-known artists.
The family lived in the Adelaide Hills at The Cedars, a beautiful home sheltered by towering Himalayan cedars and surrounded by majestic gums. As a child Nora travelled this landscape with her father, learning at his side. Because his wife Sallie was a superb manager, art promotor and home maker, Hans could focus on his art. Their home was frequently filled with important visitors and artists.
This influenced Nora, and from an early age, she found herself wanting to draw and paint. She received positive reinforcement from her father, particularly when he judged her drawing best out of all his children. Once, a visitor mistakenly thought one of teenage Nora’s gum tree paintings was by her father. When Dame Nellie Melba, Australia’s most-famous operatic soprano, was visiting, she saw Nora’s watercolour of apple blossoms and gifted her a palette. Nora treasured and used this palette all her life.
As she matured Nora moved out of her father’s studio and into her own – a converted stable on the grounds of The Cedars. All agreed that Nora should concentrate on portraits, still-life and flower paintings. She was greeted by success at a very young age, and by the time she was twenty, Nora’s paintings had been purchased by three state galleries. In 1933, she mounted her first solo exhibition of 62 paintings. It was a great success, so like her father, Nora used the funds to travel to Europe for further study.
Nora found a small flat in London which she shared with Evie Stokes, a friend and fellow student from Adelaide. Enrolled at a famous art school, Nora’s style was criticised as old-fashioned. Modernism was becoming a strong force, and Nora found this rejection of realistic depiction challenging and disheartening. Fortunately, she met Orovida and Lucien Pissarro, both painters and direct descendants of Camille Pissarro. They liked her work and encouraged her to lighten her palette. She loved the variety of colours they encouraged her to try.
However, without her father’s network of patrons and amidst the changing trends, Nora found selling her work in London difficult. She returned to Adelaide in 1937 imbued with influences of Cezanne, Pissarro, Van Gogh and Corot. Her work became distinctly high-keyed and her painting style looser. Her brushwork became more gestural without abandoning sound draughtsmanship and strong compositional structure. Many consider Nora created some of her best work at this time.
Nora’s flower pieces sold well in Australia, and she could afford to move to Sydney where friends also helped her secure portrait commissions.
To Nora’s great surprise, one of her portraits won the prestigious Archibald Prize for portraiture in 1938. Nora was the first woman to win this and, at 27, she is still the youngest artist ever to win. Her beautiful Eurasian woman wearing a Chinese cloak entranced the all-male judges.
In 1943 Nora became the first official female War Artist and served as a captain in the Australian Women’s Army Service. She was commissioned to paint portraits of women serving as nurses, cooks, drivers and in senior positions in the Pacific. An extensive portfolio of work is still housed at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
There she met the love of her life – Dr. Robert Black – a handsome tropical medicine specialist. It was a fraught relationship as Black was married with a small son. In November 1945, Nora returned to Melbourne army studios to complete her commission.
Nora married Dr. Robert Black in 1953, and their house, The Chalet in Hunters Hill Sydney, with its garden and views became their haven, although Nora found household chores and marriage ‘a great disruption’ to her art practice. Nora’s father died in 1968, and Robert and Nora divorced in 1976. Though a determined painter like her father, Nora was not adept at self-promotion, her flower pieces and portraits were no longer in vogue, and she eventually disappeared from the art scene.
She was living in genteel poverty when Lou Klepac, curator and art publisher, visited to discuss exhibiting some of her father’s works. Klepac noticed Nora’s paintings and realised their importance. He mounted a retrospective exhibition Faces, Flowers and Friends at the S.H. Ervin Gallery in Sydney in 1989. The success of the show brought Nora out of obscurity.
In 2000 Klepac and the National Library of Australia in Canberra mounted another well-received exhibition of Nora’s paintings. She was invigorated to see her first self-portrait prominently displayed at the entrance, feeling it confirmed that she was an artist in her own right. According to Klepac, Nora ‘produced more self-portraits than any artist except Rembrandt’.
Nora died 30 December 2003 at the age of 92 after a short illness. In 2004, the Nora Heysen Foundation, Inc. was established at the Heysen family home in South Australia.
In March 2019, The National Gallery of Victoria mounted Hans and Nora Heysen: A Generation of Australian Art, and it too was a great success. For the first time, this gifted father and daughter’s distinctive styles were shown together. An authorised biography Nora Heysen: A Portrait by Anne-Louise Willoughby published by Freemantle Press was also launched at the opening. This is an excellent biography for anyone interested in exploring Nora’s life further.
Nora Heysen, a remarkable woman whose artistic achievements spanned a period of some 75 years, will not be allowed to disappear again.
Janelle Hatherly of Sydney, Australia is an emerging artist who has been telling stories and communicating ideas through words for years. She is a retired educator/science communicator and spent her working life facilitating learning in schools, museums and botanic gardens. She paints/sketches every day and deepens her appreciation of art history and practice. Janelle has been a member of the Cecilia Beaux Forum Literature Committee for a year, researching and writing about historical female artists such as Nora Heysen as well as giving her perspective on being a mature emerging artist for the blog.