Nora Heysen, the daughter of artist Hans Heysen (q. v.), was born in Hahndorf, South Australia, and began her studies at the School of Fine Arts, North Adelaide, working under F. Millward Grey. As a young artist, she showed considerably maturity and technical skill, and by the age of 20, her work had already been acquired by the State Galleries of New South Wales, South Australia and Queensland.
In 1934 she travelled overseas to study at the Central School of Art and the Byam Shaw School in London. Returning to Australia in 1938, she settled in Sydney, and that same year became the first woman to win the Archibald Prize with her portrait of Madame Elink Schuurman. From 1944 to 1946 she served as an official war artist in New Guinea.
Although possessing fine draughting skills and a remarkable talent as a portrait painter, Heysen is best known for her still-life paintings of flowers, which were part of her earliest memories of childhood in Hahndorf.
Her work has not remained static, develop¬ing over the years from traditional naturalism with meticulous attention to detail, to a more free style of painting, in which she worked rapidly to retain that first vivid impression. The changes in her style are evident in the works in the Carrick Hill Collection painted over a period of 20 years.
SUMMER FLOWERS, 1933, is dominated by the formal arrangements of flowers exuding life and joy - roses, fuchsias, November lilies, gladioli, dahlias, scabias and delphiniums, all placed in a glass bowl, on a quaint three-legged stand resting on a table. The grey background and earth tones of the table are a sombre contrast to the brilliant colours of the richly varied flower forms - each petal meticulously painted - shining with light falling from the left. Attention is also drawn to the detailing of the glass bowl, its small stand, and even the pattern on the table which is suggested with ochre brushstrokes. Although painted when the artist was only 22 years of age, this work displays Heysen's mature technical skill and perhaps the influence of Fantin Latour, whom she greatly admired.
The painting Pom Pom DAHLIAS, 1947, demonstrates some of the advice Heysen received from Lucien Pisarro, whom she met during her studies in London in 1935. His recommendation was to change her palette, by doing away with earth tones and to use clearer colours to achieve light and atmosphere. Although this advice appears to have influenced many of her later works, she never completely deserted the earth colours. In this work, the impasted cream foreground and textured background make a perfect foil for the simple dark prussian blue vase leading the eye up to a burst of colour - citrus yellows, crimsons, pinks and mauves. The tightness of the small flowers is conveyed by flexible brushstrokes, using comp¬lementary colours for the necessary contrasts. There are no earth tones to draw the eye down - only a bunch of grapes and two plums echoing the dark prussian blue of the vase - so different from the smooth detailed painting in SUMMER FLOWERS.
A change of style is apparent again in STILL LIFE WITH ROSES, c. 1950s. Lovely Souvenir de la Malmaison roses and small yellow flowers sit informally in what resembles a Georgian glass, its elegant shape highlighted by flicks of clear white. The background is laid) on in a web of small horizontal brush strokes of clear colours - mauves, blues, pinks and greens, creating a vibrant backdrop for the soft pink roses, with lively brush strokes and thickly applied paint suggesting their delicate forms. Heysen's delight with the spon¬taneity and brilliance of French painting, which she had observed in Europe, is evident in this work.
Heysen's talent as a portrait painter is shown in her drawing SELF PORTRAIT, 1943, which provides a dramatic contrast to the delicacy of her floral art. There is a strength in this work, captured particularly around the eyes, which both acknowledges and predicts the determination of the young artist to succeed in the world of art.