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Heysen, Sir Wilhelm Ernst Hans (1877–1968)

by Colin Thiele

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Wilhelm Ernst Hans Franz Heysen (1877-1968), by Judith Fletcher

Wilhelm Ernst Hans Franz Heysen (1877-1968), by Judith Fletcher

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 3910

Sir Wilhelm Ernst Hans Franz Heysen (1877-1968), artist, was born on 8 October 1877 in Hamburg, Germany, sixth child of Louis Heinrich Wilhelm Heysen and his wife Maria Elisabeth Henriette, née Eberhard. Louis migrated to South Australia in 1883 and his wife followed with the five surviving children next year.

From 1885 Hans attended the East Adelaide Model and four other schools in Adelaide, acquiring a bilingual education and giving early indications of artistic skill. His father moved from one unsuccessful enterprise to another until he established himself as a produce merchant. Heysen left school in 1892, working first in a hardware store and then on one of his father's produce carts. At 14 he bought his first paints: 'I saw a drainpipe with stalks and reeds … It seemed to me beautiful so I painted it', he later said.

His growing interest in painting and drawing led to enrolment in James Ashton's Norwood Art School. He quickly achieved distinction. At 16 he was painting so well that Ashton bought his water-colour 'The Wet Road'. It eventually found its way into the Art Gallery of South Australia.

During the ensuing five years his work was exhibited regularly in Adelaide. From an early age he developed a deep love of the Adelaide Hills, tramping about with his paintbox and stool whenever he could. One of his favourite spots was the Onkaparinga Valley near the villages of Hahndorf and Grunthal, and many of his early pictures came from this area.

He was fortunate in his patrons. Robert Barr Smith paid the fees for twelve months at the school of design at the Art Gallery of South Australia under Harry Gill and in 1899 four prominent businessmen offered Heysen an astonishing legal contract in which they agreed to advance £400 to finance his studies in Europe in return for the right to recoup their outlay by selling whatever he might paint while abroad. Heysen accepted the offer eagerly.

For four years he worked hard in Europe—first in Paris at the Académie Julian and Colarossi's Academy under various masters including Jean Paul Laurens and Benjamin Constant and at the Académie des Beaux Arts and later in Italy. There were also summer painting excursions to Holland and Scotland, and a hasty visit to Germany. He returned to Adelaide in 1903. He later reported that the impact of Australian light as he sailed up St Vincent's Gulf was like a slap in the face, profoundly affecting his attitude and vision. Almost at once he turned his back on Europe and concentrated on Australian landscape.

Soon Heysen was attracted by one of his pupils, Selma Bartels. They were married quietly on 15 December 1904 in the Bartels' bluestone house on Hurtle Square.

Heysen continued to earn his living by teaching and painting. He sold pictures to the State galleries in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide and to private buyers, but his one-man shows in Adelaide were failures and he still had to teach to eke out an income. Finally some of his friends, particularly Emanuel Phillips Fox, arranged a one-man exhibition in Melbourne. It was opened by Prime Minister Alfred Deakin on 8 August 1908 and was a phenomenal success. Encouraged by his wife, Heysen decided to give up teaching and rent a cottage in the hills. On 11 November he left Adelaide forever.

The success of the Melbourne exhibition brought commissions from prominent patrons such as (Dame) Nellie Melba and Victoria's governor. There was also increasing publicity and appreciation from critics and collectors such as (Sir) Lionel Lindsay and (Sir) Baldwin Spencer. A second Melbourne exhibition in 1912 enabled him to buy The Cedars, set in thirty-six acres (15 ha) of the Hahndorf country-side. He lived there for the rest of his life, recording the essence of the landscape and the labours of the German farmers in the fields.

From now on Heysen was envied for the peace and freedom of his country life. His newly built studio, standing among trees on the slope above the house, was idyllic in its setting, and a large family of growing children made for a busy, happy household which the passions of World War I did not entirely cloud.

Heysen was fortunate in being able to mount a third successful Melbourne exhibition before the war intensified. It was opened by Melba on 4 March 1915 and sales were again outstanding. Seven weeks later came Gallipoli, and Heysen and his family, along with other German-born citizens, were soon being subjected to suspicion and insult. Ironically he was a quiet, gentle man who loved Australia and who was deeply opposed to war and violence. In 1918 he wrote to Elioth Gruner of the war's 'constant prey on one's mind'.

After the war Heysen's exhibitions took up where they had left off. Show after show was phenomenally successful. This, together with frequent press notices, articles by Lionel Lindsay, and publications with fine colour reproductions by Sydney Ure Smith, made Heysen's name a household word. Although gum-trees and pastoral landscapes were still his favourite subjects, he now also painted large numbers of still life studies.

In 1926 he went to the Flinders Ranges for the first time and later made many visits which produced a torrent of sketches and water-colours, chiefly from the Aroona and Arkaba areas. Some of these were completed on site but most were brought back to be worked on in the studio. Heysen, now 50, was physically vigorous and welcomed long hard days in the field. His artistic output was enormous.

In 1934 he went to Europe and on his return settled down as a kind of elder statesman in the world of Australian art. He assisted aspiring young artists unstintingly and gave long service as a board-member of the National Gallery of South Australia. He continued to sketch and paint, holding periodic exhibitions and contributing generously to appeals and group shows. This was particularly so during World War II which passed with much less bitterness than the first, even though soldiers were billeted at The Cedars for a time.

Heysen was a small, thin, unostentatious man whose blue-grey eyes peered through horn-rimmed spectacles. In old age he was almost bald and usually dressed in polo-necked sweater, knickerbockers and socks to the knee. He worked on steadily, ultimately leaving a vast legacy of thousands of sketches and charcoal drawings to the State gallery. His wife died in 1962 at 83, and he himself died in the Mount Barker Soldiers' Memorial Hospital on 2 July 1968 at 90. Both were buried in Hahndorf cemetery. Heysen's estate was sworn for probate at $195,882. There were five daughters, three sons and one adopted daughter in the family: Nora (b.1911) showed artistic talent from childhood and made her own reputation, winning the Archibald Prize in 1938.

Heysen holds a distinctive place in the history of Australian landscape art. He won the Wynne prize nine times between 1904 and 1932, the Crouch prize in 1931, and the Maude Vizard-Wholohan prize in 1957. He was knighted in 1959.

Technically he was an outstanding draughtsman. His control over line was superb. According to Lionel Lindsay he drew as painstakingly as Dürer in his respect for organic form. Although his response to nature was personal and lyrical, his approach to recording and interpreting it was analytical. The whole nation came to see the gum-tree as he saw it. In 1939 he had said: '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'. He was a fine water-colourist, etcher and painter in oils, and he sketched magnificently in charcoal and crayon. He was fascinated by the effects of light on land and sky, and on the apparent weight or weightlessness of natural objects under changing conditions of light, shadow, mist or sunshine.

In spite of his achievements Heysen's vision was limited. His art tended to remain static, to lack variety and experiment. From a twentieth-century standpoint he was unsophisticated and unscholarly. The sweeping changes that wrenched the world of art and the accompanying turmoil of theory and thought tended to pass him by. There was a sameness of treatment, a staleness of subject-matter, which was compounded in the public mind by scores of imitators who lacked his skill in composition or draughtsmanship. Nevertheless his honesty and integrity are acknowledged and his real achievements remain.

Heysen was a conservationist far ahead of his time. He fought to preserve the flora of the Adelaide Hills—particularly the great red gums and white gums—and repeatedly warned of the dangers of destroying the natural environment. He also recorded the human activities of the region in great detail. In this he has been compared with the Barbizon painters of France for his deep understanding of simple labour in the fields. No other Australian artist has preserved a regional way of life so fully and faithfully. He was not a religious man, but he had a pantheistic reverence for Nature.

Heysen's association with Hahndorf was lifelong and artistically productive. James Stuart MacDonald summed it up by saying that the drawings were 'packed with a sort of Virgilian wisdom, the simpler and higher awareness of the meaning of the soil and all its progeny and products: halcyon days, foul weather, thunder, and rain-laden clouds, and winds made visible'.

Select Bibliography

  • C. M. Thiele, Heysen of Hahndorf (Adel, 1968)
  • I. North (ed), Hans Heysen Centenary Retrospective 1877-1977 (Adel, 1977)
  • I. North (ed), Heysen (Adel, 1979)
  • Heysen papers (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Colin Thiele, 'Heysen, Sir Wilhelm Ernst Hans (1877–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/heysen-sir-wilhelm-ernst-hans-6657/text11473, published in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 22 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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