Nora Heysen (1911–2003) is a highly regarded twentieth-century artist. Her self-portraits are among her most striking contributions to Australian art. They are arresting images of a modern, independent woman that are exquisitely executed with a distinctive and refined realism. This outstanding portrait will be the first self-portrait painting by Heysen to enter the national art collection.
The daughter of painter Hans Heysen, Nora was born in 1911 at Hahndorf in the Adelaide Hills. The fourth of eight children, she was the only one to follow her father into a career in art. Nora Heysen painted her bold and brilliant Self-portrait 1932 while she was living in South Australia, and she maintained a strong connection with her home state throughout her life. The National Gallery of Australia aims to represent art from each state and territory in Australia and has, for some time, sought to better represent this significant South Australian-born artist.
Self-portrait 1932 is a major early example of Heysen’s rich self-observations. She draws together her interest in Italian Renaissance art and classicism and her sense of herself as a modern woman committed to her art. Heysen depicts herself with a focused determination that became a characteristic of her self-portraiture; her blue eyes are fixed in a piercing gaze. The look expertly captures her confidence as well as her self-containment. In her hands, she holds two brushes and her treasured palette given to her as a child by her father’s patron, Dame Nellie Melba. Heysen refined the contents of the scene, focusing attention on her and her art as the subject, with nothing more than a rich blue curtain as the backdrop.
Heysen developed a skill for portraiture at a young age, drawing and painting members of her family and friends. She first exhibited with the Society of Artists in Sydney in 1930 at the age of just 19. By age 20, she had her first works purchased by the trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Art Gallery of South Australia. She held her first solo exhibition in 1933. Among numerous awards for her portraiture and still-lifes, in 1938 Heysen became the first woman to be awarded the Archibald Prize. In 1943, she became the first woman to be appointed an official Australian war artist and was sent to New Guinea.
Self-portrait will enable the National Gallery of Australia to represent Nora Heysen’s depth as a painter. It will greatly enhance the national art collection, strengthening the representation of Modernist women artists and twentieth-century art from South Australia. We also believe that it will stand the test of time as one of the most impressive portraits in Australian art. It is then fitting that this painting has been chosen to join other masterpieces acquired with the assistance of the Masterpieces for the Nation Fund, which is now in its ninth year running. It is also particularly significant as 2011 marks the centenary of Heysen’s birth.
Deborah Hart, Senior Curator, Australian Painting and Sculpture post-1920
and Miriam Kelly, Assistant Curator, Australian Painting and Sculpture
in artonview, issue 65, autumn 2011
in artonview, issue 65, autumn 2010