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Nora Heysen: The Artist of Outstanding Portraits


Capturing the qualities and sensations inherent to the subject with precise, strongly defined forms and earthy colors, the Australian artist, Nora Heysen, is acclaimed as one of Australia’s most successful female artists and country’s first female war artist.

Revered as the first woman to win the prestigious Archibald Prize for portraiture, Heysen was born on January 11, 1911, in Hahndorf, South Australia. Heysen, the fourth child of South Australian landscape painter Sir Hans Heysen, received her earliest art training from her father. From 1926 to 1930 she studied at the School of Fine Arts in Adelaide under F Millward Grey.

In 1930, Heysen’s work was acquired by the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Art Gallery of South Australia. In 1933, her first solo exhibition was held at the Royal South Australian Society of Arts. In 1934, she traveled to London with her family and remained in Europe until 1937 studying and painting. After returning to Australia, she revisited her old studio at Hahndorf and then moved to Sydney, where she lived for the rest of her life.

Settling in Sydney, Heysen became a member of the Society of Artists and in 1938 won the Archibald Prize for her portrait of Madame Elink Schuurman. In late 1943 she became the first woman to be appointed as an Australian war artist, during the Second World War. Commissioned to depict the women’s war effort in the air force, the navy, and the army, she completed more than 170 works of art before being discharged from service in New Guinea in 1946.

While in New Guinea Heysen met Dr. Robert Black, a specialist in tropical medicine, whom she later married in 1953. Following her discharge from the war service she went to London, returning to Sydney in 1948. She frequently traveled to New Guinea and the Solomon Islands with her husband where she made several paintings and drawings of the local people and landscape as revealed in a seated portrait of King Mitakata, New Guinea 1953.

Heysen continued to exhibit in South Australia and New South Wales throughout her career. She had her first retrospective exhibition in 1984 at the Old Clarendon Gallery, South Australia, followed by others at the National Trust S.H. Ervin Gallery, Sydney, in 1989 and the National Library of Australia, Canberra, in 2000. More recently, her work featured in the traveling exhibition Nora Heysen: Light and Life held in 2009.

Nora Heysen died on December 30, 2003, in Sydney.


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