Jennifer Higgie on Nora Heysen

Part of a series of new perspectives on portraiture commissioned for Archie Plus

Nora Heysen

Self portrait

1932
oil on canvas
Gift of Howard Hinton 1932
© Lou Klepac

She’s 21. Her father, the artist Hans Heysen, is away; Nora has taken over his studio. In her words, she’s like ‘an animal marking out its territory’. She paints herself again and again.

She’s earned enough money from art to buy herself a velvet jacket. Her brush hovers above her palette, a gift from the opera singer Dame Nellie Melba. On the wall, a fragment of a painting by her favourite artist, Vermeer. Nora glances at us impatiently. She has work to do.

Her talent is prodigious; in six years, she’ll be the first woman to win the Archibald Prize; in 11, she’ll be appointed Australia’s first female war artist. However, after the war, her fame fades and she’s sorely neglected until the late 1980s. What happened?

Jennifer Higgie is an Australian author whose book The mirror and the palette: 500 years of women’s self-portraits will be published in 2021

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