During his lifetime Hans Heysen was one of the most accomplished and publicly acclaimed painters of the Australian landscape. He was equally a master of oil paint and watercolour, as well as a formidable draughtsman in pencil and charcoal. The landscape around Hahndorf in the Adelaide Hills and especially its old gums were his preferred subject matter. He was also attracted to the rugged isolation of the Flinders Ranges in South Australia.
‘Drought sheep’ underwent gradual development, indicated by the date Heysen put on the work (1916-21) and a preliminary drawing ‘Travelling sheep’ c1916, now also in the Art Gallery of NSW collection. The preliminary drawing is half the size of ‘Drought sheep’ and has an additional sheep in the bottom left foreground. Heysen removed it in the watercolour, strengthening the overall compositional movement to the right. In both drawing and watercolour, muscle, bone and sinew are suggested in the movements of each sheep.
This evocative watercolour was produced around the time of the First World War when Heysen’s loyalty to Australia, like many others of German birth or background, was unfairly questioned. As well as capturing the conditions that accompany severe drought, it may reveal something of the artist, suggesting his anxiety at the time. A flock of parched sheep moves across a hot and dusty track under an overarching sky with clouds in magnificent ferment but without the promise of rain. Featureless and treeless, it is an unusual work for an artist whose paintings of grand eucalypt forests came to epitomise heroic Australian landscape painting in the interwar decades.
Heysen won the Wynne Prize for landscape an unprecedented nine times between 1904 and 1932, boosting his early reputation and the popularity of his work. He was knighted in 1959.
Curator insights - Australian galleries Drought sheep
pencil, watercolour on paper
57.6 x 79.0 cm sheet; 87.9 x 108.4 x 3.4 cm frame
Signature & date
Signed and dated l.l. corner, "HANS HEYSEN 1916/21".
Not on display
© C Heysen
Shown in 10 exhibitions
Hans Heysen retrospective exhibition (1921), Society of Artists, Sydney, 24 Nov 1921–08 Dec 1921
Hans Heysen (1922), F W Preece, Adelaide, 07 Sep 1922–23 Sep 1922
Purchases and Acquisitions for 1950, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 15 Feb 1951–22 Apr 1951
Hans Heysen centenary retrospective (1977), Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 08 Oct 1977–20 Nov 1977
Australian images: Prints, drawings and watercolours from the collection, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 22 Dec 1979–28 Jan 1980
Visions after light, art in South Australia, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 18 Jul 1981–02 Aug 1981
Twentieth century Australian watercolours from the collection, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 05 Apr 1989–25 Jun 1989
Animals on paper: from the Australian collection of prints, drawings and watercolours:
Australian watercolours 1880s to 1990s:
Hans Heysen Retrospective (2008-2010):
Referenced in 9 publications
Rebecca Andrews, Hans Heysen, Adelaide, 2008, 133 (colour illus.).
Jane de Teliga, Australian images: Prints, drawings and watercolours from the collection, Sydney, 1979, 6.
Lou Klepac, Parallel visions: works from the Australian collection, 'Hans Heysen / Elioth Gruner / Horace Trenerry', pg. 32-47, Sydney, 2002, 36 (colour illus.), 143, 147.
Hendrik Kolenberg, Animals on paper - from the Australian collection of prints, drawings and watercolours, Sydney, 1992. cat.no. 19
Hendrik Kolenberg, Twentieth century Australian watercolours from the collection, Sydney, 1989, (illus.). cat.no. 27
Hendrik Kolenberg, Australian watercolours 1880s to 1990s, Sydney, 1995, 42 (colour illus.), 118. cat.no. 31
Sandra McGrath and John Olsen, The artist & the desert, Sydney, 1981, 40 (colour illus.).
Ian North, Hans Heysen centenary retrospective, 1877-1977, Adelaide, 1977, 52 (illus.).
Author Unknown, Wool in the Australian imagination, Glebe, 1994, (illus.).