Women from History: Girl Painter

By Julia Ritson "Girl Painter Who Won Art Prize is also Good Cook." That's the 1939 headline for a story about Nora Heysen in The Australian Women's Weekly. It just so happened she was the first female artist to win the Archibald prize - just as well she could cook.

Nora Heysen, portrait by Harold Cazneaux, 1939

Heysen was a portrait and still-life painter, but I think her portraits are more powerful. Here she is at 22. A year before leaving South Australia to spend three years in Europe.

Nora Heysen, A portrait study, 1933

She seems to be announcing her independence from her famous landscape painter father Hans Heysen. The work is precise, strong and earthy. An assessment of self. A self-assured girl painter. Many years later, Heysen settles in Sydney and paints this worldly self portrait.

Nora Heysen, Self-portrait, 1953

As with many of Heysen's self portraits, we see the artist holding her palette. When Dame Nellie Melba visited her father's studio the opera singer was so impressed by the 15 year old's work that she gave her the palette as encouragement.

The self portrait is like a reminder to an artist. I'm a painter, this is what I do. Here I am. 20 years on and I'm still full of confidence and ready to keep painting.

Hazel de Berg recorded interviews with about 250 painters and sculptors in the 1960s. Thanks to the amazing Hazel we can also hear the voice of Nora.

Julia Ritson is a Melbourne artist. Her paintings investigate colour, abstraction and a long-standing fascination with the grid. Julia has enriched and extended her studio practice with a series of limited edition art scarves. She also produces an online journal dedicated to art and scarves and architecture.