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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.

Self portrait, 1934

Nora Heysen

oil on canvas (frame: 60.8 cm x 53.5 cm, support: 43.1 cm x 36.3 cm)

Nora Heysen AM (1911–2003) was one of Australia’s most accomplished portrait artists. One of the eight children of landscape painter Sir Hans Heysen and his wife Selma (herself a talented artist), Heysen was encouraged to paint and draw from an early age. At fifteen, she enrolled at the School of Fine Arts in Adelaide, receiving there what she later remembered as an uninspiring and rigid brand of tuition. While still a student, she exhibited with the Society of Artists in Sydney and had examples of her work purchased by the state galleries of New South Wales and South Australia. She had her first solo exhibition, aged twenty- two, in 1933, by which stage she had demonstrated her remarkable skill as a portraitist. Heysen stated in 1994: ‘I wanted at that time to get away from my father’s subject matter. I turned to painting faces and painting myself… to get right away’ and to establish a sense of independence as an artist. She went to London in 1934, studying at the Central School of Art and the Byam Shaw School before returning to Australia. She moved to Sydney in 1938 and in that year won the Archibald Prize – the first woman to do so – with her portrait of Madam Elink Schuurman, the wife of a Dutch diplomat. In 1943 she became the first woman appointed to work as an official war artist, serving as Captain Heysen in New Guinea and Borneo, where she was sent to record the activities of servicewomen. While in New Guinea she met Dr Robert Black, whom she married in Sydney in 1953. The following year they purchased a house called The Chalet in the Sydney suburb of Hunters Hill, which was Heysen’s home for the remainder of her life. Heysen was in her seventies when the first retrospective exhibition of her work was held in South Australia; several similar exhibitions followed, including a major survey presented by the National Library of Australia in 2000–01.

This is one of a number of self portraits Heysen made in the early 1930s, but it is unusual amongst works from that period in its close-up, front-on perspective and minimal background. The portrait was in Heysen’s private collection until being purchased by the National Portrait Gallery in 1999.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery
Purchased 1999
© Lou Klepac

Accession number: 1999.50

Currently not on display

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Artist and subject

Nora Heysen (age 23 in 1934)

Subject professions

Visual arts and crafts

Related information

The Companion

Permanent collection catalogue

Café and shop

On one level The Companion talks about the most famous and frontline Australians, but on another it tells us about ourselves: who we read, who we watch, who we listen to, who we cheer for, who we aspire to be, and who we'll never forget. The Companion is available to buy online and in the Portrait Gallery Store.

Self portrait, 1965 Jean Appleton
Self portrait, 1965 Jean Appleton
Self portrait, 1965 Jean Appleton
Self portrait, 1965 Jean Appleton

In good company

Magazine article by Joanna Gilmour, 2015

Jean Appleton’s 1965 self portrait makes a fine addition to the National Portrait Gallery’s collection writes Joanna Gilmour.

Self Portrait, 1963–64
Self Portrait, 1963–64
Self Portrait, 1963–64
Self Portrait, 1963–64

What price self?

Magazine article by Jane Raffan, 2013

Jane Raffan investigates auction sales of self portraits nationally and internationally.

Interview with Nora Heysen video: 2 minutes
Interview with Nora Heysen video: 2 minutes
Interview with Nora Heysen video: 2 minutes
Interview with Nora Heysen video: 2 minutes

Nora Heysen

'This peaceful spot'

Portrait story

Australian artist, Nora Heysen, discusses her childhood and the development of her career.

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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.