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Self portrait
, 1934

by 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, Canberra
Purchased 1999
Accession number: 1999.50