HANS HEYSEN: An Artist for All Seasons

Hans Heysen, Summer, 1909 - Photo by Art Gallery NSW

Hans Heysen [1877-1968]

Sir Wilhelm Ernst Hans Franz Heysen, OBE was born in Hamburg Germany on 8th October 1877. His father, Louis, emigrated to Australia in 1883 before his wife, Maria, née Eberhard, joined him a year later with their five surviving of six children born.

From 1885, Hans attended first the East Adelaide Model and then four different schools in the area. He was taught in both English and German and showed early promise as an artist. After leaving school at age 14, he worked for the sawmill and hardware company, Cowell Brothers, before joining his father’s hardware merchant business.

The wet road, 1894 by Hans Heysen – Photo by National Gallery of Australia

Hans began painting around the same time, attending night classes at the Norwood Art School under James Ashton; his wages paying for his art supplies. He painted the watercolour The Wet Road in 1894, the first painting he sold, and which was bought by Ashton for ten shillings. The following year, he joined the Academy of Art and in 1897, he became a member of the Adelaide Easel Club, both established and run by Ashton.

Ashton’s belief that students should have at least the basics of drawing proficiency was underscored by the inscription that hung on his wall: ‘He that attempts to run before he can walk must surely stumble and fall’.

Every year between 1895-1899, Heysen exhibited with the Easel Club and from 1897-1899, also with the South Australian Society of Arts which was a division of the former.

During that time, in 1898, he enrolled with the South Australian School of Design, after Australian businessman and philanthropist Robert Barr Smith paid his first year’s fees. In 1899, the Royal Drawing Society of Great Britain and Ireland awarded him both first prize for a landscape in watercolour, and a silver star for a drawing in charcoal.

Hans Haysen at Easel – Photo by Heysen – The Cedars

The same year, when Hans was 20, a group of wealthy Adelaide art patrons sponsored him with a four-year art scholarship and study tour in Europe. The group, comprising Dr. Henry Higham Wigg, his brothers-in-law William Laidlaw Davidson and Frederick Allen Joyner, and miner Charles Henry de Rose, advanced Heysen £400 on condition that they were given the option to sell whatever work Heysen produced whilst abroad. His studies began at The Academie Calorossi and The Academie Julian. The former was established in the 19th Century by Italian sculptor Filippo Colarossi and The Academie Julian, established in 1868, prepared art students for the exams of The École des Beaux Arts. Both academies allowed female students to join and draw male nudes, something the conservative École would not countenance.

In 1900, Hans extended his studies at The École des Beaux Arts in Paris. His summer vacations were spent painting in Holland, Germany, England and Scotland. He spent his final year in Capri and Italy where he painted copies of the Old Masters held in churches and museums.

Returning to Adelaide in 1904, Hans opened a studio and art school, reverting to painting the Australian landscapes, especially its iconic gum trees, that he is renowned for. In 1939, Hans stated, “In all its stages the gum tree is extremely beautiful – first for being a tiny sucker with broad leaves, shooting up like a fountain answering to the slightest breeze – at middle age it becomes more sturdy, more closely knit and bulky, yet never losing grace in the movement of its limbs and the sweep of its foliage.”

In an article by Ross Fitzgerald featured in the newspaper The Australian on 8th July 2017, author Lou Klepac quotes artist John Olsen in his book Hans Heysen set against Australian landscape in biography (The Beagle Press, 2016): “Hans Heysen was the first non-indigenous artist to tackle the landscape of Australia’s interior. There, he discovered trees that embed themselves into the earth, and reach so sturdily that they are like Doric columns. In a sense, they become like portraits. Yet there is nothing Bohemian about Heysen. His life and work represented a stability as strong as his gum trees.”

The coming home by Hans Heysen – Photo by Art Gallery NSW – NSW Government

On 15th December 1904, he married Selma (aka Sallie) Bartels, one of his pupils. They went on to have eight children of their own; five daughters, three sons as well as another adopted daughter. Their daughter, Nora, also became a recognised artist. She was appointed as the first Australian female war artist in World War I and was awarded the Archibald Prize in 1938. This was established in 1921 and continues today as an annual award ‘’for the best portrait, ‘preferentially of some man or woman distinguished in art, letters, science or politics, painted by any artist resident in Australasia’’.

An exhibition in Sydney in 1904 saw Hans’ The Coming Home (1903) bought by the gallery for 150 guineas. It was sold in Perth for A$28 000 in May 1999 and again for A$30 000 in November 2000.

Hans’ arrangement with his benefactors had left him impoverished and he continued teaching until the major success of his solo exhibition in Melbourne, which opened on 8th August 1908, selling work to the value of £750. Sallie encouraged him to terminate his teaching classes following growing positive publicity, including support from Dame Nellie Melba and his close friend Sir Lionel Lindsay. Another successful exhibition in 1912, attaining total sales of £1500, allowed the Heysens to buy The Cedars, a 60ha heritage property near Hahndorf in the Adelaide Hills. Heysen lived the rest of his life in the homestead, painting from a limestone studio built amongst the trees close to the house.

Hans Haysen’s Mystic Morn, 1904 – Photo by Art Gallery of South Australia

In 1904, Heysen painted Mystic Morn, which won him the Wynne Prize. The work was bought by the Adelaide Gallery for 150 guineas. A charcoal drawing of the work sold for A$500 in July 1970. Heysen went on to win the prestigious award a further eight times. Established in 1897 by Richard Wynne, the prize is an annual award for ‘the best landscape painting of Australian scenery in oils or watercolours or for the best example of figure sculpture by Australian artists completed during the 12 months preceding the [closing] date’. The judging is by the Trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales and is one of Australia’s longest running art awards.

Heysen’s art won the Wynne Prize again in:

1909 – Summer

1911 – Hauling Timber

1920 – Toilers, charcoal drawing sold for A$6 200 in November 2017

1922 – The Quarry, sold for A$4 800 in October 1980

1924 – Afternoon in Autumn

1926 – Farmyard, Frosty Morning

1931 – Red Gums of the Far North, sold for A$8 000 in April 1981

1932 – Brachina Gorge, sold for A$55 000 in December 1994

Heysen gravitated to still-life painting from about 1914, using flowers, fruit and vegetables as his subjects. He would paint these when he was unable to venture outdoors in inclement weather. He would not make preliminary sketches, preferring to paint for days if necessary, to capture the composition before it perished.

Portrait of Hans Heysen by Harold Cazneaux, 1935 – Photo by Art Gallery of NSW | Harold Cazneaux

The outbreak of World War I resulted in a difficult period for Heysen. He held a third profitable exhibition in Melbourne in March 1915 but the Gallipoli Campaign had begun weeks previously. Anyone of German descent was viewed with suspicion by the Australian authorities.

Newspapers printed in German were banned and schools teaching in the language were closed. An account goes that students from Adelaide University tarred and feathered a German professor. However, a suggestion that Germans who had received qualifications in Australia be stripped of these was overturned.

Art historian Ralph Body recounts that while undertaking research for his PhD, he discovered a collection of letters written between 1914-1917. These were between a senior commissioner in Adelaide and a police officer in Mount Barker, some 30km from Adelaide, questioning Heysen’s loyalty.

Heysen was put under surveillance purely because of his German birth. The police response to Heysen’s comments that he was pleased with German losses was to report that “From this, it will be seen that although Heysen’s sympathy may be with the Germans, he is too clever and cunning to show any sign of disloyalty.”

The report goes on to quote “The police, for not one moment, believe he is loyal [to the British Empire].”

The three gums by Hans Haysen – Photo by National Gallery of Australia

Hans’ generous donations to the war effort in the form of the South Australian Wounded Soldiers’ Fund were met with scepticism by the authorities, who viewed this as a subterfuge. Art galleries removed his work and he was excluded from one of the first retrospectives of Australian artists, held in 1918.

Heysen was actually a pacifist and totally opposed to the war.

The National Gallery of Victoria was interested in buying The Three Gums, painted in 1915 (then known as White Gums), but were wary of doing so under the question of Heysen’s nationality. After making some changes to the work, Heysen sold it to the Ballarat Art Gallery in 1921. In March 2004, it was auctioned for A$19 000.

Between 1920-1926, Heysen held four exhibitions, earning him in excess of £11 000. Two issues of Art in Australia, first published bi-annually and later quarterly between 1916-1925 were dedicated to him.

In 1931, he was awarded the George Crouch Prize for Contemporary Art, established in 1927 by MP Richard Crouch in honour of his father.

The Camp at Wononka Creek – Photo by ABC

In 1932, Heysen painted the watercolour, The Camp on the Wonoka Creek, Flinders Ranges. It had been sold to a James McGregor in 1958 who is believed to have given the piece away as a gift. It was returned to the Australian market when it was discovered as part of a deceased estate in Dusseldorf some 60 years later.

In May 2017, hotelier Jason Duffield read the news of the upcoming auction on social media and knew his father would be interested as he used to be neighbours with Hans. The family agreed to bid on the work and despite stiff competition, successfully acquired the work for A$110 000, a record for a watercolour in South Australia.

In 1934, Heysen returned to Europe and in 1935 he held an exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, his first in a public art museum.

World War II broke out in 1939 and in 1940, the then Board of the National Gallery of South Australia (to become the Art Gallery of South Australia) appointed Heysen as a trustee, which position he held for 28 years until his death.

There was a marked difference in attitude to the German ancestry which had caused such a furore in the Great War, the issue being largely ignored. This was exemplified when in 1945, Heysen was awarded the OBE for Service as a Trustee of the Hobart National Gallery.

Red gums of the far north by Hans Heysen – Photo by Art Gallery NSW – NSW Government

He was awarded the Maude Vizard-Wholohan prize in 1957 and in 1959, he was made a Knight Bachelor for Service to Art in the Queen’s Birthday Honours. The award is amongst the oldest British commendations, established in the 11th century.

Hans was an early pioneer of nature conservation. He advocated the preservation of the red and white gums of the Adelaide Hills and warned of the pitfalls of degrading the natural environment. He was known to pay landowners and the local authorities substantial sums in lieu of their cutting the trees for industrial use.

Heysen is regarded as the first artist non-Australian to paint the gum trees and other characteristics of rural life, including farm animals such as sheep, livestock and horses, and their human carers. His work was post-impressionist, evoking realism but not portrayed photo-realistically. He preferred to romanticise his subjects rather than depicting them as they truly appeared.

Brachina Gorge (1932), oil on canvas by Hans Heysen – Photo by Australian Art Sales Digest

Heysen’s work can be found in major galleries, including the Art Gallery of South Australia which has a major collection personally bequeathed to them by Hans. This comprises over two thousand drawings, oils and watercolours. He is also represented in The National Gallery of Victoria, the National Library of Australia in Canberra and The Royal Collection in London.

His memory lives on in Australia, in areas other than art. The 1500km walking trail between Cape Jervis and Parachilna Gorge is called the Heysen Trail and one can find the Heysen Range in the Flinders Ranges, the largest mountain range in South Australia.

Hans Heysen died in Mount Barker Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital on 2nd July 1968, aged 90 and is buried in Hahndorf Cemetery.