It’s ages ago since I went with friends to see the Hans and Nora Heysen: Two Generations of Australian Art exhibition at NGV Australia at Federation Square. It was on between 8 March and 28 July and we visited on 8 May. I was pleased I got to see it. Hans is known for his Australian landscapes and I’m not that keen on them but this exhibition included portraits and studies of flowers and interiors by him that I was not at all familiar with. I didn’t know anything about Nora who was known for her portraits – having won an Archibald prize for one, the first woman to do so – and who had been an official war artist in New Guinea during the second world war. She also liked painting flowers! It was interesting to see the work of father and daughter side by side.

First up here is one of Hans Heysen’s most famous paintings. I think there might have been a print of this at Watchupga Primary School – in any event it is very familiar! And quite arresting. It was originally going to be called just Into the light which shows that capturing the light during different weather and different seasons was really Heyson’s primary interest rather than the people and animals that are included in many of his landscapes. In the end the word Droving was added to the title. He’s quoted in the accompanying note as saying; The sun – it’s light and its warmth – is my religion. This painting we are told is now celebrated as ‘one of our greatest Federation pictures’. The note tells us that Hans’s landscapes do not refer merely to what it is to be Australian but rather what it is to belong to nature in a more holistic sense. I’m not sure about that but I like the picture a lot. It was painted between 1914-21

Droving into the light

Overall I liked his paintings of other things better than the many landscapes, lots from the Flinders Rangers, for which he is famous. I love the warm colours in this windmill at Hahnford which he painted in 1899. You can almost feel the heat of the day.

Windmill on the Hill

This is another painted in the same year and also at Hahndorf. Painted before Heyson’s first trip to Europe but clearly influenced by overseas trends in art, as evidenced by the focus on cherry blossoms. These were a favourite subject for Van Gogh, for whom Hans had a particular enthusiasm. This image of the rusted pump is an early example of a lifelong interest in rural vernacular subjects.

The water pump

This next one was another painted in 1899 when Hans was just 22 and a member of the Adelaide Easel Club which is when he started travelling regularly to Hahndorf. I suppose he was interested in the township which was settled in 1839 by German Lutherans because of its strong European character which is captured in this painting.

Settler's cottage

This painting is much later, 1934 and shows the artist’s wife immersed in sewing at her window. The blue of her dress and the light radiating through the window lend the work some of the qualities of a composition by the seventeenth-century Dutch artist Vermeer. Hans had reproductions of Vermeer’s Girl with a pearl earring and A painter in his studio in his home.

Sewing (the artist's wife)

This painting is very influenced by European artists, being painted in 1901 after his travels in Europe in 1900. The note names the Barbizon School of nineteenth-century French painters as influencing the tonal images of the land and the realist influences of Millet and Courbet for the images of farm workers.

Dutch farm worker gathering wood

Here’s another painted in 1901, showing the same influences.

Woman at the washstand

I loved all of the flower paintings by both Hans and Nora. Here are a couple of examples of those by Hans. This one was painted in 1924. I like how it captures the murky water, the uneven stems and the detail of the embroidered cloth under the vase.

Delphiniums and lilies

And this one, painted in 1930, perfectly captures the overblown, blowsiness of handpicked flowers from the garden. The blue of the curtain matching the blue of the vase, the dropped petals and ripe fruit all bring to mind lazy summer afternoons.

A cottage bunch

So onto the paintings of his daughter Nora with whom he had a loving and supportive relationship. She was the fourth of his children and the only one to become an artist. This is her pencil drawing of her father, done in 1925 when she was 14 years old.

Hans Heysen

And here is her painting of the living room of the family home, showing clearly the copy of Vermeer’s Girl with a pearl earring on the wall. The note says this painting is unfinished, but it looks pretty finished to me! The home was called The Cedars and is apparently largely unchanged to this day.

Cedars interior

Nora lived in London between 1934 and 1937 and this painting was done there in 1937. The note says this is an example of the Dutch influence in Nora’s painting … simple composition … golden pumpkin … the deep blue of Evie’s dressing gown … offset against the rich browns of the table and chairs.

London breakfast

Here is another work completed in London in 1937. I wonder if the title comes from George Orwell who published Down and Out in Paris in 1933. The note tells us she was unsure of her worth as an artist having sought advice from an artist her father admired and not getting much support.

Down and out in London

Like her father she painted studies of flowers. She liked to treat each element in a composition individually as you can see in this bowl of petunias. Hans wasn’t so keen on this, but this willingness to privilege the detail over the cohesive whole is arguably a mark of Nora’s engagement with modernism and a point of differentiation between father and daughter


You can see the attention to detail in each of the petals in this vase of gladioli which Nora painted in 1933.


I really liked this portrait, which is much more natural than the many self portraits Nora did. Against the plain background there are shades of socio-realism in this depiction of a working man. The dignity of labour writ large – although in this case it is a small businessman. We had a travelling grocer in Watchupga – might be my imagination but I think he looked a bit like this man.

The Hahndorf travelling grocer

According to the note accompanying this self portrait, one of quite a number on display, Nora used these paintings -the self-portraits – as a coded way of defining herself. Here, in one painted in 1932before her trip to Europe, she is proclaiming herself an artist. She is holding her paint brush and her palette is tilted forward. The this pallete was a gift from Dame Nellie Melba a friend and patron of Hans, and an early advocate of Nora’s talent.

Self Portrait

This self portrait is painted much later, in 1954, after she has married and moved into a new home. According to the note, she is defining her life in these new-found environs, once again depicting herself as a professional artist against bare walls waiting to be filled with her paintings.

Self Portrait

I liked her paintings of wartime New Guinea (where my father fought). This is a painting of the man who would become her lover and then husband – they met when he sat for this work. He was a specialist in tropical diseases and here he is shown absorbed in his work, surrounded by an abundance of beautifully rendered scientific equipment.

Pathologist titrating sera (Captain Robert Black)

Nora was very excited at the prospect of becoming the first female war artist when the possibility emerged in 1943 but predictably she was treated differently from her male counterparts, and was assigned to document medical and research units. Even so she got into trouble for her choice of artistic subjects while in the role. Her war portraiture bears all the marks of her great sensitivity as an artist and humanist and arguably little in the way of explicit patriotism. Here is a good example.

Ambulance plane carrying battle casualties from Morotai to Townsville

I liked this one best. Simply entitled Rain it conjures up mateship amidst devastation rather wonderfully I think. She noted the challenges of working in these conditions; My paintings mildew overnight, they’ll be old masters before I get them back. All of Nora’s painting and drawings during her time as a war artist were acquired by the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.


These photos are just a tiny sample of the works that were on show in this exhibition. It was really excellent and I’m glad to have had the opportunity to revisit the work of Hans Heyson and to be introduced to Nora’s work.

It was fun comparing the work of father and daughter when they were painting the same subjects. Here is an example. This is a still life of onions by Hans.


And here is the same subject matter painted by his daughter. According to the note this composition was a source of minor irritation to Nora: haaving arranged the vegetables to paint herself, she went briefly away and returned to discover her father fainting his own version. They were both painted in 1927.

Still life with onions


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>