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Nora Heysen

Australia 1911–2003

The fourth of eight children, the young Heysen demonstrated unique artistic ability and began to work closely with her father. At the age of 15 she started formal training in Adelaide, followed by study in Europe. Settling in Sydney, she established herself as a distinguished painter of still life and portraits. By the time she painted this self-portrait, three state galleries had already acquired her work. She was the first woman to win the Archibald Prize, in 1938, and the first female Australian war artist, travelling to New Guinea and Borneo in 1943.

Self portrait 1932

This self-portrait strongly expresses Heysen’s identity and confidence as a 21-year-old artist and her independence from her artist father, Hans Heysen, whom she admired. It is his studio in which she sits in this painting.

The work’s powerful composition of strongly defined forms and earthen colours recall aspects of 17th-century European painting. Vermeer’s Artist in the studio 1666 can be seen in the background, acting as a symbol of the artistic tradition that inspired Heysen’s work. The velvet jacket she wears was bought with the proceeds of her first sale.

Nora Heysen Self portrait 1932