Painter of Gums - Hans Heysen

Hans Heysen was born Wilhelm Ernst Hans Franz Heysen in Hamburg, Germany on 8 October 1877. In 1884 he came to Adelaide, South Australia with his family. He showed an early interest in art but left school at 14 to work firstly in a hardware business then in his father's produce business. He began to study art at James Ashton's Norwood Art School in the evenings. In 1897 he attended the School of Design thanks to a the help of Robert Barr Smith. He sold his first painting The wet road to his art teacher. His work soon became highly regarded, so much so that in 1899, four prominent businessmen from Adelaide paid for his tuition in Europe. In return, anything he produced was to become their property. Hans was quick to accept the offer and spent four years overseas, spending most of his time in Paris. He also spent a summer in Amsterdam and his last year in Italy and Capri. When he returned, the impact of the Australian light as he sailed up St Vincent's Gulf was huge and he soon decided to concentrate on painting the Australian landscape.

Because of his agreement with his benefactors, Hans had no money when he returned in 1903. He took a small studio in Adelaide and began to paint full-time. He also held art classes and soon met Selma (Sallie) Bartels. He and Sallie were married in 1904 and in the same year he won his first major Australian art prize. However, it was not until his friends helped organise an exhibition in Melbourne, opened by Prime Minister Alfred Deakin, that he had much success. This exhibition brought commissions from Dame Nellie Melba and others. It also brought increased publicity and appreciation.

Heysen's StudioCredit: Wikimedia


In 1908, Sallie and Hans moved to Hahndorf. His love affair with the Australian bush was now given full rein. The family rented a cottage in Billygoat Lane. In 1912 he held a highly successful exhibition in Melbourne and sold enough paintings to purchase a small, picturesque property called 'The Cedars'.

In 1915, his Melbourne exhibition was opened by Dame Nellie Melba at The Athenaeum. Two pieces by Heysen had been set aside for this exhibition. One was called In Sunset Haze. In the end, the Melbourne Gallery could not agree on which painting to buy and bought neither. The real reason was that Heysen was German-born and there were strong and bitter feelings against all things German at the time.

Hans Heysen: Into the Light (Carrick Hill series)
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Heysen was a naturalised Australian and was well known in South Australia but during the war years, feelings against the Germans ran high. In Sunset Haze was taken home and a red gum was added to the centre of the painting. Heysen also changed the name to Droving Into The Light. W H Vincent saw the painting, bought it and had it shipped to Perth, Western Australia. In 1932 he presented it to the Western Australian Art Gallery where it remains.

By this time Heysen as able to stop teaching and devote himself entirely to his painting. In 1926, he went to Flinders Ranges for the first time. The little camper trailer was only the second of its kind. Heysen produced prodigious amounts of work after every trip to the outback. Like Namatjira, he was captived by the beauty and majesty of the outback.

In 1938 he was able to purchase two adjoining properties, giving him just over 150 acres of land. The main reason for the additional purchase was to safeguard his beloved gum trees. The land was not used for grazing or agriculture but purely for the conservation of the gums. Heysen was known to pay substantial sums to landowners and councils to ensure the preservation of particular gum trees. Many of his favourite trees were on his own property and were painted from every angle and at every hour of the day. The gum at his front gate was a favourite subject.

Four gums in particular situated on a ridge above the house were called his 'models'. His paintings were not always faithful reproductions of what he saw. He would vary the position or location of objects, trees included, to balance a composition or provide interest or variation. Nature is not static and rather than giving a true picture of a view, Heysen's landscapes convey the beauty of the land he loved so much. He could show the play of light and shade on a tree, the strings of bark hanging in the breeze, with consummate ease. His handling of light and intense awareness of composition and texture made him unique whether using oils, charcoal or watercolour.

Heysen built himself a studio of limestone a short distance from the house. Huge glass windows flooded the studio with the light that so entranced him. He was fascinated by the effects of light and the changing colours of light, mist, sunshine and shade. Eight children were raised at The Cedars – five daughters and three sons. He and Sallie also took in and raised a grand-daughter after the death of the mother. Today, the property is still in the hands of the third generation Heysen family.

Hans' daughter, Nora, was also an artist of note and an Archibald prize winner in 1938. When Heysen died, death duties were exorbitant and it fell to Nora to sort through her father's paintings and to have destroyed those that were not up to standard to avoid paying duty on them. Such short-sighted bureaucracy is hard to imagine or condone.

The Heysens were friends with many. Dame Nellie Melba was a firm friend and would visit them on her way through Adelaide. Anna Pavlova, the famous Russian ballerina, was another visitor. Pavlova took a liking to a particular painting, a still life of zinnias, grapes, apples and passionfruit, which Heysen had painted especially to hang over the fireplace. The painting glowed with light and looked almost three dimensional. Pavlova asked to buy the painting but because it had been painted for a purpose, Heysen would not sell it. Later he did another for her and sent it to Europe but Pavlova would not accept it and sent it back.

Heysen was renowned as an exceptional landscape artist and won the Wynne Prize for landscape painting a record nine times. The largest collection of his work is held in the Art Gallery of South Australia which has more than 2,000 drawings, oils and watercolours. His paintings of the magnificent gum trees of Australia are widely appreciated.

Heysen was knighted in 1959. He died on 2 July 1968, aged 90. His beloved Sallie had died in 1962. One of the world's longest walking trails has been named the Heysen Trail. It stretches some 1500 kilometres from Cape Jervis to Parachilna Gorge. There is also a Heysen Range in the Flinders Ranges. The twin tunnels on the Freeway en route to Hahndorf and a railway carriage on the Ghan, the train which runs the breadth of Australia for Adelaide to Darwin, are also named after Heysen, one of Australia's most well-known and best-loved artists.

The Cedars is open to the public on a regular basis and Heysen's workshop is as he left it containing his painting materials and tools, together with sketches, notes and unfinished canvasses. The walking trail across the property takes you to his favourite painting sites.