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Nora Heysen: 'Self portrait' 1938

Self portrait

Nora Heysen | Australia  SA/NSW 1911–2003 | Self portrait 1938 | Oil on canvas laid on board | Purchased 2011 with funds from Philip Bacon, AM, through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | © Lou Klepac

Nora Heysen

Nora Heysen seated at desk, studio at Hahndorf c.1936–41 | Gelatin silver photograph | Collection: National Library of Australia

Merrie at Six Months

Nora Heysen | Australia  SA/NSW 1911–2003 | Merrie at Six Months 1941 | Oil on board | Private collection | © Lou Klepac

The generous support of Philip Bacon, AM, funded the purchase of this superb self-portrait by Nora Heysen. It reflects the optimism fuelling her early career, as she attained increasing popularity and critical success.

Here, Heysen paints herself as a modern woman, committed to her art and painting in a light-filled modern idiom; gone are the early influences of Italian Renaissance art and classicism. Soon after painting this work in 1938, Heysen moved away from Adelaide and the long shadow cast by her father, Hans Heysen. She quickly established herself in Sydney as a notable portrait painter and later that year won the Archibald Prize with a portrait of Madame Elink Schuurman. Heysen's work caused controversy: commentators questioned both the choice of subject — the wife of a European diplomat — and the role of women as professional artists, as Heysen was the first woman and the youngest artist to be awarded the Prize.

Nora Heysen’s self-portraits are striking images of independence and determination. This painting is one of her finest, and was considered by the artist herself to be emblematic of her achievements. She chose it as the cover of a 1989 monograph by Lou Klepac, who was instrumental in sourcing the painting for the Gallery. Here he explores its place in Heysen’s career.

Angela Goddard, Curator, Australian Art to 1975

On the occasion of the Gallery’s recent acquisition of Nora Heysen’s Self portrait 1938, Lou Klepac tells the story of an artist whose natural talent was somewhat interrupted by a troubled life.

Nora Heysen’s career had three periods. The first was when she began painting as the talented daughter of Hans Heysen, and made a debut with a very successful one-person exhibition in Adelaide in 1932. This was followed by going to study in London. When she came back she made a break from Adelaide and moved to Sydney in 1938 by which time she was an independent artist. In some ways the world was at her feet, and winning the Archibald Prize in 1938 at the age of 27 could be seen as the first step of Nora becoming one of the greatest women painters in Australia. However, the war interfered with Nora’s plans and when she became a war artist (in Papua New Guinea), fine as many of the works painted during this time were, the path that she had set herself came to a full stop. This was her second period, and it led to the third.

In New Guinea Nora discovered love. Dr Robert Black was already married and had a family. It was a difficult situation, but eventually the two lived together after the war and finally married in 1953 (as Nora wrote to her father: ‘A dream of ten years come true’). In 1954 they bought a magnificent but rundown timber house in Hunters Hill, with a splendid garden, where Nora could grow flowers and paint. She was happy for a time, but her painting life became secondary to being Mrs Black, the wife of the brilliant doctor. His interest was malaria and Nora travelled with him to exotic places where she painted and drew the subjects she found there, including the indigenous people of various islands.

Life had taken over from art as Nora’s raison d’être. Sadly, Dr Black left Nora for another woman. While she gained the rambling house in Hunters Hill, she was marooned there, with no car and no income. Nora continued to paint but there was a change in attitude and the result shows in the works she produced during this difficult period. It was making do rather than being able to return to the brilliant career she had begun. By this time the art world had also changed. Figuration had been relegated to the sideline and abstraction and abstract expressionism had taken over. She was an artist out of date.

I met Nora in 1987, when I visited her in connection with an exhibition of her father’s drawings and watercolours which I was organising. I discovered that she was far more neglected than her father (on whom I was proposing to write a book), and a far better painter than I believed her to be. She had hardly any profile except that she was known as the first woman to win the Archibald. Many would not have been aware that she was still alive.

It took some time for her to agree for me to produce a small book on her work and even longer for her to agree to a retrospective exhibition. But when the book on her art was published and an exhibition was shown at the SH Ervin Gallery, the public reacted very favourably. This gave her the impetus to return to work with renewed enthusiasm. She took up pastels and produced some beautiful still lifes of flowers and fruit, slowly getting over the bitterness that fate had inflicted on her. She may have been neglected but she had a strong will and great dignity. When I asked her how many exhibitions she had had in Sydney where she had lived for 50 years, she said that she had had none and, when I asked why, she replied, ‘Because no one asked me and I am not one to push myself’.

Her fear was that she was only the talented daughter of Hans Heysen. This idea would have arisen when she first began to paint and everyone praised her work. In fact she had works in several State Galleries before she was 21, partly due to the influence of her father’s friends. Nellie Melba, a friend of her father, was especially supportive and presented Nora with a large palette when she was still in her teens; Nora always used it.

Although her father’s fame had helped her at the beginning, by 1938 Nora was her own woman and artist. Although she admired and revered her father — she placed a fresh rose each day in a little vase under her pencil portrait of him in her house in Hunters Hill — she belonged to another generation. She was interested in Cézanne, whose work her father could not fathom; she even gave him her precious book on that artist trying to convert him.

When she saw the two retrospectives of her work, the one at the SH Ervin in 1988 (which was also shown in Adelaide at Carrick Hill) and the one at the National Library in 2000, she realised that she was an artist in her own right. She was also very pleased when a book published in England in 1998, Seeing Ourselves, Women’s Self-portraits by Frances Borzello, came out with her self-portrait (A Portrait Study 1933) on the cover.

Nora painted a number of self-portraits. The early ones are brilliant and reveal her natural talent. They were painted before Nora went to study in London, where she befriended Orovida Pissarro and met her father, Lucien, the son of the great impressionist painter Camille Pissarro. Through this contact, Nora’s work acquired greater freedom, a kind of post-impressionist paint handling with which she began her brilliant career in 1938. That year she painted a superb still life of Corn cobs (Art Gallery of New South Wales) and Self-portrait, both 1938. The latter is one of Nora’s most lovely and private works. It is also the first of a series of fine works that includes Portrait of Adrian Feint 1940 (National Library, Canberra), Motherhood 1941 (Ballarat Art Gallery), and the head of her god-daughter, Merrie, the daughter of Nora’s great friend, Evie Stokes, who was in London with her in the 1930s and to whom Nora gave the 1938 self-portrait.

Had circumstances been different and Nora had been able to have one continuous period in her career, beginning with the self-portrait of 1938, the perception of Nora Heysen would have been very different during those long years of neglect. And her oeuvre would have been far greater than it is. For this reason, this very personal self-portrait marks the point when everything was possible for Nora. Her determined but shy personality seems to be gazing into a bright future.

Lou Klepac is an art historian and publisher. After a career as a curator in state galleries, he established The Beagle Press in Sydney which has been publishing books on Australian art for over 30 years. Klepac authored several publications including Russell Drysdale (1983), Nora Heysen (1989), William Robinson (2001) and John Coburn: The Spirit of Colour (2003).