By Judy Chant

With self-portraits you can be alone with yourself and not have to worry about another person .

Born on 11 January 1911 at Hahndorf, South Australia, Nora was the fourth of eight children born to Hans and Selma Heysen. Her father Hans was one of Australia’s most renowned landscape painters in the twentieth century. Studying at the School of Fine Arts in North Adelaide, Nora became a gifted portrait and still-life painter.

Despite the social constraints of the day, Nora’s solo exhibitions proved successful and her paintings were hung in the state galleries of NSW, Queensland and South Australia. At the time, many young Australian artists and performers undertook a pilgrimage, a rite of passage, to London, broadening their perspectives by studying the classical Old Masters on the Continent.

Seen as the centre of culture and the arts, Nora visited the Louvre and the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris, the galleries of Florence, Rome, Venice, Milan and many more. In 1934, Nora undertook a further two years at the Central School of Art in London. However, she found it difficult to be taken seriously by many of the male artists who often thought that women could not be serious about their work and they were simply searching for a husband. While Nora did not consider herself a feminist, she undoubtedly benefitted from that movement, whereby she was able to study abroad, unchaperoned.

Nora returned to Australia in 1938 and moved to Sydney, where she was able to exert her independence from her artistic father and start her own professional life. Sydney had become the centre of art in Australia and among her friends and acquaintances were Norman Lindsay, Russell Drysdale and William Dobell. At 28 years of age, she became the first woman to win the prestigious Archibald Prize for portraiture and the youngest winner of the prize at that time. Her winning portrait depicted Madame Elink Schuurman, wife of the Netherlands’ consul.

Nora’s achievement was not without criticism. At a time when women were largely expected to marry and undertake a role of domesticity, one male entrant announced that it was ‘unnatural’ for a woman to be a serious artist, another commented that the competition should not be open to women, while yet another suggested that Nora return the prize money because her painting was inept! It was 1960 before another woman was awarded the Archibald prize for portraiture.

In 1943, World War II was well underway and with the rank of Captain, Nora became Australia’s first official female war artist. She was assigned to the Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS) and she began painting studio portraits of commanding officers of the Women’s Auxiliary Services. In 1944, Nora arrived in Finschhafen on the Huon Peninsula of Papua New Guinea. She later served in Lae, Morotai and Borneo, spending a total of seven months in Papua New Guinea, painting the activities of the Papuan Infantry Battalion and the Australian nurses with the Medical Air Evacuation Transport.

Apart from the women, Nora’s paintings included the everyday activities of mechanics at work on aeroplane engines, cooks peeling potatoes and landing barges carrying the wounded ashore. Unfortunately, she suffered from severe dermatitis and was forced to return to Australia, where she painted scenes at the Blood Bank at Sydney Hospital and the activities of RAAF nurses on medical evacuation flights in Queensland. Although as a female she was kept away from the fighting, by the end of the war, Nora had produced over 250 works of Australia’s involvement in the Pacific during World War II.

While in Papua New Guinea, Nora met and later married Dr Robert Black, a professor of tropical medicine who specialised in malaria research. At the time, malaria was as dangerous as the Japanese enemy. Nora and Robert purchased The Chalet at Hunter’s Hill, Sydney, where Nora lived out her life with her many cats, painting her beloved flower garden. She regularly visited Papua New Guinea, the Trobriand Islands and Solomon Islands after the war to paint local people and their landscape, often accompanied by her husband. Her portraits included King Mitakata in full regalia, with necklaces of pig tusks and strings of shells. The Art Gallery of NSW now holds part of this collection. Nora and Robert’s marriage was fraught with difficulties and in 1972, the couple parted after almost twenty years.

Nora was an extraordinarily talented artist. She loved her rambling garden and she loved painting flowers, preserving their beauty and holding the natural world in spiritual reverence. She also painted to celebrate the capacity of women at a time when female talents were often overlooked.

In 1998, Nora was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for her service to art. Following a series of heart attacks, Nora Heysen died on 30 December 2003 at the age of 92. There was a groundswell of interest in her work, reflected in increasing auction prices for her paintings. The Nora Heysen Foundation, based at Hahndorf in South Australia, continues to exhibit her work.