Hans and Nora Heysen

Two Generations of Australian Art

The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Fed Square

Ground Level

8 Mar 19 – 28 Jul 19

Hans and Nora Heysen: Two Generations of Australian Art brings together the work of Hans and Nora Heysen, father and daughter artists whose work spanned more than a century during which Australia and the world underwent numerous social, political and artistic transformations. In many ways, theirs is an archetypal twentieth-century Australian story of migration, family life, wartime separation and a deep connection to place. Both artists travelled in Europe and their work demonstrates both international influences and engagement with their Australian contemporaries. While Hans devoted his mature practice predominantly to the depiction of landscape, Nora became renowned as a portraitist and painter of still life.

Hans and Nora’s lifelong written correspondence offers rare insight into a mutually loving and supportive relationship, as well as into their working methods, inspirations and thoughts on the key artistic debates of their time. Their shared reverence for the natural world, manifested in Hans’s evocative landscapes and Nora’s vibrant flower paintings, strengthened their bond. In 1936, Hans wrote to his daughter of what he perceived as the key to a fulfilling life and a source of sustenance in difficult times:

‘A great love for Nature – who will ever unfold all her secrets in any one of our lives’.

Exhibition labels

Download onto your device and adjust to suit your viewing needs.


Hans Heysen Born in Hamburg, Germany in 1877 to Maria and Louis Heysen, Hans Heysen and his family moved to Australia in 1884. In 1892, aged fourteen, Hans left school and was apprenticed to a sawmilling and hardware business near Adelaide, buying art materials with his wages and drawing in his spare time. In 1893, he enrolled in James Ashton’s Norwood Art School, where he was identified as an unusually talented pupil. A four-year scholarship in Europe followed, initiating a period of profound artistic growth. Within a year of returning to Australia, he set up his own studio, won the Wynne Prize, and married Selma (Sallie) Bartels. Hans’s comfort and success in later life were hard-earned: he had overcome the traditional barriers of an aspirant artist lacking funds and connections, and also the burden of anti-German prejudice, which saw him watched by police during the First World War and cost him important professional opportunities. That he was able to regain his place among the most-loved Australian artists of the twentieth century is testament to both the quality of his work and his personal charisma. He won numerous prizes and awards and was knighted in 1959. Hans painted and drew almost until his death in 1968, at the age of ninety. Nora Heysen Born in 1911, the fourth of Sallie and Hans’s eight children, Nora was the only one to pursue an artistic career. Although not formally taught by her father, Nora observed his work, accompanying him on painting trips from an early age. In 1926, at age fourteen, she enrolled at the North Adelaide School of Fine Arts, studying full-time for five years. After selling her first painting in 1930, Nora began painting in a converted shed at the family home and over the next three years her works were acquired by national collections around Australia. From 1934 until 1938 she studied in Europe, developing a looser, more high-keyed style. She then moved to Sydney, which remained her home for the rest of her life. In 1938 Nora was the first woman to be awarded the Archibald Prize for portraiture and subsequently became the first female official war artist, serving from late 1943 to early 1946. Although Nora fell into obscurity from the 1950s, she continued to paint and draw until her death in 2003 at the age of ninety-two. Hans and Nora Heysen: Two Generations of Australian Art is the most extensive exhibition of her works to date and demonstrates her profound and affecting mingling of sensitivity and strength.