04 May 2019

Hans and his daughter, Nora Heysen - a great art exhibition in 2019

In the late 1880s and 1890s the Heidelberg School painters painted the Australian scene with satisfying accuracy. NSW's Nat­ional Art Gallery created an ex­hib­ition at Grafton Galleries in London in 1898. Expert art committees from 4 Australian states selected and vetted 371 works by the top Australian artists – famously Arthur Streeton, Frederick Mc­Cub­bin, Charles Condor, Tom Roberts and Julian Ashton etc.

The Golden Summers Exhib­ition of 1985 heightened the nostalgia for that prec­ious, short-lived span of painting, contrived en plein air. I loved the Golden Summers Exhibition. But Australian art of the first half of the C20th continued to grow, perhaps as a lesser period after the Heidelberg School.

Now Hans and Nora Heysen: Two Generations of Australian Art is the first major exhibition to bring together the work of father-and-daughter-artists Hans and Nora Heysen. The exhibition is at the Ian Potter Centre NGV, Federation Square Melbourne and will remain open until 28th July 2019.

Thanks to the NGV Magazine #15 for the following two biographies:

1. Born in Hamburg Germany, Hans Heysen (1877–1968) and his family moved to Australia in 1884. In 1892, 14 year old Hans left school, apprenticed to a saw-milling business near Adelaide, buying art materials with his wages and drawing when he could. In 1893, he enrolled in James Ashton’s Norwood Art School, where he was seen as a very talented pupil. A four-year scholarship in Europe followed in 1897, initiating further artistic growth.

By the turn of the century, the Australian bush had become an ob­ject for nostalgia, with most people living in urban centres. In the year he returned to Australia, Hans set up his own studio, won the prestigious Wynne Prize and got married in 1904. In 1908 Hans Heysen staged a very successful exhibition in Mel­bourne, which established his reputation as Australia’s pre-eminent landscape painter. He was famous for his wonderful depict­ions of the Australian landscape, with van Gogh’s and Cezanne’s influen­ces best seen in Flinders Ranges paintings.

His comfort and success in later life were hard-earned: he had overcome the trad­itional bar­r­iers of a young artist lacking funds and connections, and also the burden of anti-German prejudice, which saw him watched by Austral­ian police during WW1. That he was able to regain his place among the most-loved Australian artists of the C20th is test­ament to both the quality of his work and his peaceable character. He won many awards, was knighted in 1959 and painted almost until his death in 1968.

Hans Heysen,
Droving into the Light, c1915

Hans Heysen,
Lord of the Bush, 1908

 Hans Heysen,
The Toilers, 1920

2. The fourth of Hans’ 8 children, Nora (1911-2003) was the only one to pursue an art career. Although not form­­ally taught by her father, Nora observed his work, accompanying him on his painting trips. In 1926, at 14, she enrolled full-time at the North Adelaide School of Fine Arts. After selling her first painting in 1930, Nora began painting in a converted shed at the family home and over the next three years her works were acquired by national collections around Australia. From 1934-38 she studied in Europe, developing her style. She then moved to Sydney, which remained her home for the rest of her life.

The two generations of artists’ work spanned decades during which Aus­t­ralia and the world underwent major social, political and art­istic transformations. In many ways, theirs was an archetypal C20th Australian story of migration, family life, wartime separation and a deep connection to place. Both artists travelled in Europe and their work demonstrated both international and Australian con­temp­oraries’ influences. And while Hans preferred landscape, Nora pre­ferred portraits and still lifes.

How easy it was to be the artist-daughter of a famous artist-father? Their letters showed a loving and artist­ic­ally creat­ive relationship between Hans and Nora, and into their wider concerns about C20th Australian art and society”. But there were notes of daughterly anxiety written, and some fatherly notes of warning.

Hans was recognised as one of the pioneers of Australian landscape painting, while Nora was an established por­t­raitist and still life painter who in 1938 became the first woman ever awarded the even more prestigious Archi­bald Prize in Australia. This award goes annually to the best por­t­rait of someone distinguished in art, letters, science or polit­ics, painted by any artist resident in Australasia.

This is the first major exhibition including both their works, 270 works that included paintings, sketches and pre­paratory studies. And it is the most com­plete pres­entation of Nora’s career to date. And the exhibition includes her strong and sens­itive self-portraiture and a wide selection of works prod­uced dur­ing her commission as Australia’s first female official war artist in WW2. Serving from 1943-46, she was commissioned to document medical- and res­earch-units around Australia, including wounded soldiers.

Spanning both World Wars and decades of important Aust­ral­ian his­tory, the viewer sees Australian stories across half the C20th. Both art­ists travelled widely across Europe as part of their on­going art education, and their work demon­strated a deep knowledge and apprec­iation of international influences, AND engagement with their Australian contemp­or­aries.

Nora  Heysen,
Self Portrait, 1932

Nora Heysen,
Still Life, 1930

Hans helped shaped the course of C20th Australian art, as did Nora (at least she did until the 1950s). Their shared veneration for the Natural World, seen in Hans’ evoc­ative land­scapes and Nora’s vibrant flower paintings, was part of their bond. Perhaps Hans’ work was strong­er, but Nora’s work was more sensitive.

If I had been living abroad for the last 50 years and had nev­er heard of Hans Heysen, I would love his landscape Driv­ing into the Light c1915 in any case, and would instantly recognise the Australian bush. The NGV catalogue (2019) for this exhibition is excellent.



Andrew said...

While appreciate the skill required to paint still life, Hans' work is just wonderful and I doubt there is an Australian born person of a certain age who doesn't feel some connection to his paintings.

Ex Pat said...

I came to Australia younger than Hans Heysen and I just wanted to speak English like a local and play football like a local. Heysen became the best Australian landscaper.

Hels said...


that is still correct today! Colonial art in the 19th century was created by Australian artists here or overseas, but was so strongly influenced by European art that it was impossible to identify the landscapes as Australian.

The Heidelberg School, from the 1888 on, changed all that. Hans Heysen and his colleagues didn't want fake European landscapes, as we can see. Bless his heart.

Hels said...

Ex Pat

*nod* every migrant says the same thing, especially if they moved to their new countries as children and teenagers. The Heysen parents supported their German-speaking children in getting apprenticeships and reliable careers. Then Hans enrolled himself in art schools in Australia and overseas, focusing on his great success as an Australian landscape artist.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I was immediately taken by "Driving into the light." The quality of the light is somewhat reminiscent of certain Hudson River School paintings, although the work stands on its own merits. It is wonderful to study old masters, but I love the work of "local" painters--each place and time has a certain look and feel, and only these painters were able to capture it.

I would also like to see more of Nora's work. Still lifes have their own charm--the one you show is excellent, and the still-life elements in the background of her self-portrait show great skill while adding bits of autobiography and humor.

Parnassus said...

Hi again, I just looked up a few more of their pictures. Hans has an extraordinary ability to paint trees and use their forms to good effect in his paintings. Nora is interesting in that her still lifes are so finished and pretty, but her portraits portray a more rough-and-wild quality, revealing an allegorical and psychological penetration. Her self-portraits even have a little of a "bride of Frankenstein" staring quality, although a photograph shows her as quite attractive and normal looking. --Jim

Hels said...


When I look at Hans Heysen's landscapes, I normally think of Australia's colours - we normally don't do a real green, as in the UK or other wet countries; we do dry olive brown instead. And the gum trees have dry, stringy bark and needle-type leaves. But this week I was looking at paintings of women looking through their 19th century windows to the gardens outside... and I too was struck by the light!

Many thanks for the connection.

Hels said...


The Archibald Prize has been our most important annual portrait competition (of a famous scientist, person in the arts, politician etc) since 1921. It always tended to be a bit conservative, but even so, I was still surprised that no woman had ever won until Nora Heysen, in 1938. No wonder her works tended to be fairly finished and pretty. Or perhaps she wanted to make her famous dad and his famous art colleagues proud!

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Hels - I've enjoyed reading about the Heysens ... as I know nothing about Australian artists ... but can quite see the quality of their work. Hans' use of light is wonderful isn't it ... in some ways the views remind me of some of the WW2 artists work we have down here on the Sussex landscape at that time. Beautiful art and I love Nora's still life - glorious ... thanks - I enjoyed learning more about them - cheers Hilary

Hels said...

Everyone overseas knows heaps of Australian actors and tv personalities eg Cate Blanchett, Clive James, Nicole Kidman, Rolf Harris, Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Kylie Minogue, Geoffrey Robertson, Kathy Lette. Of course.. these people are on tv and films all the time!

But you are right.. who knows our truly talented painters? As well as Heysen, I would like to include Louis Buvelot, Frederick McCubbin, Tom Roberts, Charles Conder, David Davies, Arthur Streeton, Clara Southern, Jane Sutherland, Walter Withers, Emanuel Phillips Fox, Ethel Carrick Fox etc.


On ANZAC Day this year, with Australia's first official female war artist Nora Heysen (appointed 1943) as inspiration, the NGV explored Australia's official war artists then and now. A transcript of the discussions is in the NGV Magazine, Nov-Dec 2019, Issue 19.

Hels said...

I am sorry I missed the ANZAC Day event, but I can easily see the images and text in the NGV Magazine. Many thanks.