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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

The artist and the doctor

Nora Heysen and Robert Black’s passionate relationship bloomed against a backdrop of global conflict.

1Robert H. Black MD, c. 1950. 2Self portrait, 1934. Both Nora Heysen. © Lou Klepac

Nora Heysen was the first woman to be appointed an official Australian War Artist, in 1943. She was deployed to New Guinea the following year, where she met Dr Robert Hughes Black, a pathologist working to prevent and treat malaria in Australian troops. The pair fell deeply in love and acted on it, creating a fraught situation as Black was married with a young son. The artist would later describe it as ‘my first love affair’. The couple finally married in 1953, immediately following Black’s divorce, and after already living together in Sydney, which scandalised Heysen’s family. The artist’s 1950 portrait of Black shows the man she adored: dignified, thoughtful and handsome, in three-quarter profile. This painting remained in Heysen’s possession for over 40 years, until she donated it to the Portrait Gallery in 1999, when the institution also purchased her 1934 self-portrait.

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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.