Artist Feature: Nora Heysen

NORA HEYSEN (1911-2003)
Tomatoes 1951
oil on canvas on board
35 x 43cm

Nora Heysen achieved many firsts in her career. She was the first woman to win the prestigious Archibald prize for portraiture, and the first female Australian official war artist.

As a young girl, Nora was strongly encouraged by those around her to pursue her artistic talents. Sydney Ure Smith, Lional Lindsay, and Will Ashton (friends of her father Hans Heysen) nominated her the winner of a prize amongst her siblings for the best artwork, and she later received an artist’s palette from family friend Dame Nellie Melba in 1927 which remained with her for decades to come. With support behind her, Nora experienced early success being awared the best still life at the South Australian Society of Arts when she was just 19.

Nora Heysen’s body of work displays her inherent preference for still life. Upon her return from London in 1938, it is believed that Hans agreed with her that she would focus on still lifes and him landscapes to avoid the comparisons between their work and allow each to maintain their own success. Although still life was a subject matter already deemed appropriate and acceptable for women painters, Nora chose it as she genuinely preferred it to painting en plein air. Still life enabled her to focus on form, shadowing, and diverse colouring. It should be noted that Nora was a very strong-willed woman, and so she would not have shyed away from painting the more “masculine” subject matter, such as landscapes, if she wished.

Nora explored the various facets of still life painting, from florals to vegetables to objects. It was in compositions of fruits and vegetables, however, that we notice the inherent agrarianism. In Tomatoes 1951 the eggplant is bulbous, firm, and perfectly shaped. The tomatoes are rich, plump, and ripe for the eating. These still lifes are not just a study of objects, but a celebration of seasonal produce and the abundance of the land.  Although Nora adopted a more elevated viewpoint, she was inspired by Henri Fantin-Latour especially his Plate of Apples 1861.

In the book accompanying the wonderful exhibition Hans and Nora Heysen, curator Tracey Lock fittingly identifies, “under the repeated sharp observation of everyday fruits and vegetables and cut flowers, the Heysens’ empirical art came to denote a human interface with nature, where the journey was within. Resonating with a defining healing spirit, their quiet home-based paintings are as potent as any of the assertively modern or nationally self-conscious artistic expressions of their period. The still lifes remind us that as a space to contemplate in peaceful silence the simple beauty of natural forms and objects, there is indeed ‘no place like home.”

Olivia Fuller | Head of Fine Art

October 2020

1 Hesson, A., Lock., T., Hans and Nora Heysen: Two Generations of Australian Art, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2019, p.106