Sunday, 29 May 2016


“Women, like men, should try to do the impossible. And when they fail, their failure should be a challenge to others.” - Amelia Earhart

Nora Heysen AM (11 January 1911 – 30 December 2003) was an Australian artist, the first woman to win the prestigious Archibald Prize in 1938 for portraiture and the first Australian woman appointed as an official war artist. Heysen was born in Hahndorf, the fourth child of South Australian landscape painter Sir Hans Heysen. She was raised at The Cedars in Hahndorf in the Adelaide Hills. She studied art from 1926 to 1930, at the School of Fine Arts in Adelaide, under F. Millward Grey and sold paintings to the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Art Gallery of South Australia in 1930.

From 1930 to 1933, she continued to study two days a week at the School, and worked in her own studio the rest of the time. In 1931 she visited Sydney with her parents, and spent two weeks studying at the Julian Ashton School. Her first solo exhibition was held in Sydney in 1933. In 1934 she travelled to London with her family, remaining in Europe, after they returned home, until 1937 studying and painting. When she returned to Australia she returned briefly to Adelaide and then moved to Sydney.

In 1938 she entered two portraits in the Archibald Prize. Her portrait of Madame Elink Schuurman was awarded the prize and she became the first woman to win the Archibald. There was a controversy involving criticism of her win by painter Max Meldrum. On 12 October 1943 she became the first women to be appointed as an Australian war artist at the rank of captain. “I was commissioned to depict the women’s war effort. There was that restriction on what I did. So I was lent around to all the services, the air force, the navy and the army, to depict the women working at everything they did during the war.” During her service Heysen completed over 170 works of art and was discharged from service in 1946 in New Guinea.

While in New Guinea Nora met Dr Robert Black, whom she would marry in 1953. Following her discharge from war service she went to London, returning to Sydney in 1948. She continued to paint, exhibit and travel with her husband. In 1993 she was awarded the Australia Council’s Award for Achievement in the Arts and on 26 January 1998 she was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia for her service to art. Her works are held in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia, the Australian War Memorial, the National Library of Australia, the National Portrait Gallery and several state galleries.

While formal portraits were a large part of her output, Nora Heysen also delighted in painting flower pieces and still lifes. She was a consummate draughtswoman and many of her sketches are delightful and full of character, especially those of people. The painting above is the still life “Tomatoes on a Chinese Plate” of 1939.

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