Nora Heysen (1911-2003)

Born in Hahndorf, South Australia in 1911, as the daughter of the renowned landscape painter, Sir Hans Heysen, Nora Heysen demonstrated great artistic talent and technical skill from a young age. These skills were further developed through an extensive education in the arts in which she studied at North Adelaide’s School of Fine Arts.

Displaying flexible brushstrokes and careful attention to detail, by the age of 20, Heysen’s style had become so sophisticated that some of her work was already purchased by several State Galleries.

In 1934 Heysen resumed her education abroad, studying at the Central School of Art and Byam Shaw School in London. During this time she travelled widely in Britain and Europe where she became greatly influenced by the work of Lucien Pisarro and Fantin Latour.

Heysen returned to Australia in 1938, making her home in Sydney. That same year, she found fame when she became the first woman to win the prestigious Archibald Prize with her portrait of Madame Elink Schuurman. As the decision drew much controversy in Australian art circles, the painter Max Meldrum criticised the win by saying that there was no way women could be equalled to men when it came to producing art.

However, despite the personal attacks, Heysen went on to further defy her critics with her impeccable credentials by scoring another breakthrough and becoming Australia’s first female war artist. Appointed the position on October 12th 1943, Heysen served in New Guinea until 1946, completing over 170 works of art during her service. It was here that she met her future husband, Dr Robert Black, who later became the Head of Tropical Medicine at the University of Sydney.

Heysen returned to Australia in 1946, demonstrating a greatly developed style. Through her art, the artist had proven to have moved from a static, traditional naturalism, to a freer style of painting as she sought to capture the vivid first impression a scene.

However, although Heysen showed a great talent for portraiture, she is perhaps best known for her vibrant still-life paintings of floral subjects, many of which stemming from her early memories of her birthplace, Hahndorf. She continued to produce these works until her death in 2003 at the age of 92.

On 26 January 1998 Nora Heysen received the Australia Council’s Award for Achievement in the Arts and later, the Order of Australia for her service to art as a painter of portraits and still life subjects.

Numerous solo, group and retrospective exhibitions have been held in Heysen’s name and today she is represented in all major Australian galleries, see: Nora Heysen Exhibitions as well as other corporate and private collections.

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