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19 Oct 20

Bringing to light Hans Heysen’s Sunshine and shadow


In 1904, Hans Heysen began painting Sunshine and shadow, a contemplative study of the effect of sunlight in the Australian bush. It was around this time that Heysen realised his prior landscape paintings had been neglecting sunlight altogether. He poetically explained: ‘…Australia is purely a landscape country…We are a people of sunshine and shadow, and upon those lines I think the Australian school will tend.’ 1‘Hans of Hahndorf’, The Mail, 3 May 1913, Adelaide, South Australia, p. 8. Heysen’s preoccupation with light was also articulated in a letter to his artist-friend Lionel Lindsay:

To give expression to that intangible stuff, light and atmosphere, is indeed a problem. Yet I feel these to be the essence of Australian landscape, they are what makes nature so various and fascinating. Sunshine, above all, is the essence of life, then atmosphere. 2Hans Heysen, quoted in Lionel Lindsay, ‘The Art of Hans Heysen’, in Sydney Ure Smith, Bertram Stevens and Charles Lloyd Jones (eds), The Art of Hans Heysen, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1920, p. 8.

Heysen’s sensitive treatment of colour, light and shade is apparent in Sunshine and shadow. The dabbled sunlight falling across the majestic gum trees shimmers and glows with every brushstroke. However, the true vibrancy of the picture had visibly reduced since the work was acquired in 1906 by the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), due to the gradual discolouration of the original varnish layer. Conservation examination and treatment were carried out to address this issue and shed light on the making of this much-cherished painting.

Two signatures

Prior to treatment, Sunshine and shadow was examined to better understand not only the condition, but also the artist’s working method. For reasons not immediately evident, the painting was signed by the artist twice, at both lower corners of the painting. On close examination the signature on the lower right corner (H. HEYSEN / 04) appears to have been signed first and is partially covered with dabs of blue paint possibly to obscure it. The signature on the left (HANS HEYSEN / 04-05) is more prominent and displays the artist’s name in full and lengthens the date of the painting by one year. This suggests that Heysen took longer to complete the work and wished to acknowledge this by signing and dating the work again. Some explanation for this was offered by Colin Thiele in his artistic biography, Heysen of Hahndorf (1974):

It was true that Hans had been working on “Sunshine and Shadow” for twelve months, off and on. It had come much less freely than its companion piece “Mystic Morn”, which he had finished in a fortnight. It was the same group of saplings at The Meadows again, but in a summer setting, under full light. Still not quite satisfied, he put it away with the rest of the exhibition — to work on again when he had time. 3Colin Thiele, Heysen of Hahndorf, Hyde Park Press, Adelaide, 2001, p. 79.

Detailed photographs of artist’s signatures on lower left and right corners.

It was a pivotal period in Heysen’s life when he painted Sunshine and shadow. He had returned to Adelaide only a year earlier, in 1903, after spending four years in Europe at the Académie Julian, Académie Calarossi and the École des Beaux Arts. Born in Germany in 1877, Heysen migrated to South Australia with his family at the age of six and had developed a deep affection for the Adelaide Hills. Upon his return, Heysen opened a studio and art school on Currie Street in the centre of Adelaide, and within that same year married Selma (Sallie) Bartels, with whom he would raise a large family of eight children.

Sallie was an important influence in his life and named many of his paintings, including Sunshine and shadow and its companion piece, Mystic morn, 1904, held in the Art Gallery of South Australia. 4Ibid., p. 92. As both paintings were made concurrently and depict the same scene, they naturally share similarities such as an abbreviated signature (H. Heysen / 04) on the lower left corner. Only slightly larger, Mystic morn’s composition also includes cattle moving through the eucalyptus grove, an addition described by Heysen as unconscious and intended only to bring movement to the scene. 5‘Hans of Hahndorf’, The Mail, 3 May 1913, Adelaide, South Australia, p. 8. With Mystic morn, Heysen won his first major prize (the Wynne Prize for landscape) that launched his national career.

Hans Heysen sketching, Adelaide Hills.
Photo: R. Donaldson by State Library of New South Wales collection

From sketch to paint

As an accomplished draughtsman, Heysen would produce sketch studies in charcoal and in watercolour prior to painting on canvas. 6Jane Hylton and John Neylon, Hans Heysen: Into the Light, Wakefield Press, South Australia, 2004, p. 37. His process always started with schematic drawings in nature (en plein air) until a satisfactory composition of the scene was reached.

Over the final study, a grid was drawn to transfer the design onto canvas. The steps to follow for transferring the main forms onto the canvas were observed in Sunshine and shadow. Faint charcoal lines were found with a stereo microscope nestled in between the brush strokes. The charcoal not only suggests an underdrawing but is also accompanied by an underlayer of thinned washes of oil paint, likely applied to demarcate the colour in the composition, such as the sky and creek in the foreground.

Photomicrograph at 400x magnification showing charcoal line in between brushstrokes.

From there, Heysen builds up the paint layers with quick brush strokes, working wet-in-wet where the paint is manipulated on the canvas surface, and colours mix and blend before they begin to dry. The foreground foliage is formed with loose impasto brushwork, with dabs of thick oil colour bringing texture and highlights to the picture. Many brush strokes belonging to underlying layers were observed; evidence that Heysen had returned on multiple occasions to continue working on the painting after the initial paint layer had dried. On each return, over the course of a year, the gum trees would become more interwoven and the picture more intricate.

Varnish removal

Sunshine and shadow was in remarkably good condition apart from the varnish layer, which had begun to yellow and darken and diminish the subtlety of colour and depth of the picture. Examining the painting under ultraviolet-induced florescence (also referred to as UV light), the varnish had a characteristically yellow-green appearance indicative of a natural resin. Another technique called Fourier Transform Infrared spectroscopy enabled the varnish to be identified as mastic resin. As mastic has been commonly used as a picture varnish since the sixteenth century, its solubility response to different chemical solvents are well known in conservation. Removing a varnish is a careful and methodical process, involving the preparation and testing of an appropriate solvent solution that is then gently applied to the painting’s surface using cotton swabs. The process is best monitored at intervals with UV light to ensure an even and consistent result is achieved. The visual difference halfway through the varnish removal carried out on Sunshine and shadow is illustrated in the image below.

Ultraviolent light during treatment, showing untreated half of the painting on the left with green fluorescing varnish, and the treated half on the right.

The painting was finished with the application of a new conservation-grade varnish, which is reversable if removal is required again in the future. With this treatment, the painting’s original appearance was successfully reinstated, enabling the subtle play of light and shadow that had fascinated Heysen to be appreciated once again.

Raymonda Rajkowski, Conservator of Paintings, National Gallery of Victoria

Notes

1

‘Hans of Hahndorf’, The Mail, 3 May 1913, Adelaide, South Australia, p. 8.

2

Hans Heysen, quoted in Lionel Lindsay, ‘The Art of Hans Heysen’, in Sydney Ure Smith, Bertram Stevens and Charles Lloyd Jones (eds), The Art of Hans Heysen, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1920, p. 8.

3

Colin Thiele, Heysen of Hahndorf, Hyde Park Press, Adelaide, 2001, p. 79.

4

Ibid., p. 92.

5

‘Hans of Hahndorf’, The Mail, 3 May 1913, Adelaide, South Australia, p. 8.

6

Jane Hylton and John Neylon, Hans Heysen: Into the Light, Wakefield Press, South Australia, 2004, p. 37.