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.

Portrait of Evie, 1935, conte crayon, 34 x 26 cm, Art Gallery of NSW. © Lou Klepac

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.

Self Portrait, 1938, oil on canvas laid on board, 40.5 x 30.5 cm, Queensland Art Gallery. © Lou Klepac

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.

Madame Elink Schuurman, 1938, oil on canvas, 87 x 68 cm, Private collection. © Lou Klepac