Home » Nora Heysen and her blue-eyed gaze

Nora Heysen and her blue-eyed gaze

Heysen, Self-portrait. 1932

Heysen, Self-portrait. 1932

Heysen, Self-portrait. 1932

Heysen, Self-portrait. 1932












In 1938 Nora Heysen became the first woman to win the Archibald Prize, Australia’s best known portrait prize and an annual event which has attracted much controversy since its inception in 1921. In 1943 Heysen became the first Australian female war artist and was posted to Borneo and New Guinea where she painted over 150 works in 2 years.

Prior to those significant events, the 1930s saw Heysen produce a group of memorable self-portraits. More often than not, she painted herself as an artist with the motifs of easel and palette at her side. This archetype, forged nearly 400 years earlier by Catarina van Hemessen repeats itself in history as women continually push to be identified as artists in the eyes of a male dominated society, where for all intents and purposes the term ‘artist’ was synonymous with ‘man’.

It’s not unreasonable to expect that by the 20th century things had got a little easier for women in the arts. An assumption not altogether correct, as this quote by artist Max Meldrum indicates. On announcement of Heysen’s Archibald win, he said of Heysen (and of her work), ‘If I were a woman, I would certainly prefer raising a healthy family to a career in art. Women are more closely attached to the physical things of life. They are not to blame. They cannot help it, and to expect them to do some things equally as well as men is sheer lunacy.’ This comment, no-doubt reflecting an accepted view of a woman’s role at the time, was largely spurned through sour-grapes in that the award had not been given to him.

Some will argue that Heysen’s work follows the conventions female artists had clung to for many years; small domestic still lifes and portraits of friends and family (and self) – the accepted domain for the amateur lady artist. While that may well be true, behind these ‘tame’ self-portraits there is something far more intense, personal and meaningful than what we see in the academic-style portraits executed by many of the famous male artists of the day.

The examples here exemplify this – Heysen’s self-portraits are all imbued with intense self examination. Her blue-eyed gaze is a piercing one; calculating, inspecting and evaluating not only what she could see in the mirror but also deeply introspective. Her poise is most alarming; so intense is her concentration of searching, of looking past and into herself. This is the quality so unique and valuable in women’s self-portraiture and one that has been overlooked and sidelined by the labels of ‘amateur’, ‘non-rigorous’ and of course ‘female’. If you want to see the human experience inculcated in paint, look no further than these works here.

Click here  to view Heysen’s Self-portrait, 1932 at the National Gallery of Australia.

Click here to view Heysen’s Self-portrait, 1934 at the National Portrait Gallery.

Click here to view Heysen’s Self-portrait, 1932 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales

Heysen’s 1938 winning Archibald portrait does not appear in any of our public collections – the only link I could find to it is here

Click here for a short interview with Nora Heysen made towards the end of her life. It’s a delight.

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