Morning light shows two monumental gums before a sweeping pastoral vista. The grand old tree in the foreground was a favourite of Heysen’s. He was particularly enamoured of morning light; always up before dawn to catch the changing landscape in early sunlight, such as the effect of a cool morning depicted in Morning light. Heysen painted this work in 1913, in the decade immediately after he first acquired his now famous property, The Cedars, near Hahndorf in the Adelaide Hills.
Heysen is one of Australia’s most significant landscape painters, and one of the most successful artists during his own lifetime. He so popularised the river red gum that people began to think that it was more typical than it was. By depicting this particular species he made it universal.
It is extraordinary that, prior to the acquisition of this work, the National Gallery of Australia held no major giant-gum-tree oil painting by Heysen from the Federation period. Moreover, it is hard to believe, given the popularity and familiarity of Heysen’s work, that Heysen painted only a handful of major oils (seven in all) on the subject of the gum during the Federation period (1900–14).
Heysen was conscious that he was creating nationalist imagery, which would give us a new way of seeing our land and inspiring us to love these great gums. That is why he gave them inspirational titles such as ‘A Lord of the Bush’ and ‘Red gold’. As Ron Radford said in the book Our country: Australian Federation landscapes 1900–1914, ‘[after Heysen,] it would be impossible to paint the gum tree without Heysen’s symbolic use resonating in memory’.
A substantial bequest by Ruth Robertson made it possible for the Gallery to purchase this painting. Funds from this bequest will also go toward future acquisitions of early twentieth-century Australian painting.
Head of Australian Art
in artonview, issue 66, winter 2011