Hans HEYSEN | Gums under mist

Germany 1877 – Australia 1968
Australia from 1884; Europe, England 1899-1903

Gums under mist 1917
watercolour on paper
46.8 (h) x 61.5 (w) cm
Bequest of the artist in memory of his wife 1969, Art Gallery of South Australia


A gift to the artist’s wife on her birthday, this is the first finished watercolour in a series of watercolours and drawings produced from studies of a gum tree at the front gate of The Cedars.[1] The distinctive form of this particular tree enchanted Heysen. Its straight-up vertical trunk, accompanied by many sinuous, fine downward branches, was an enticing subject for an artist especially attracted to the character and beauty of Australian eucalypts. Set against the atmospheric light effects of early morning mist, it was a subject Heysen explored many times, and from various angles. It was watercolour rather than oil that he found most suitable for capturing this delicate gum at dawn.

In Gums under mist Heysen displays absolute control over the medium of watercolour. He built up the image in a series of translucent layers, one on top of the other, moving from light to dark. He thereby captured the subtleties of colour and light typical of early Adelaide Hills autumn mornings, with the sun filtering through the mist. He had probably been studying these atmospheric effects for some time, as he had described them nearly 10 years earlier, shortly after his move to Hahndorf: ‘For the last fortnight we have had glorious frosty mornings & when the evaporation of moisture begins everything becomes bathed in the most mysterious & fascinating atmosphere, it all hums in light.’[2]

It is a painting that carried much personal significance, a 41st birthday present for Sallie, inscribed in the lower left corner ‘To my wife March 1st 1920’. Sallie lived with it for the next 42 years until she died in 1962. Several years later, on his own death, the artist bequeathed it to the Art Gallery of South Australia in memory of her.

Around the time he gave it to his wife, Heysen wrote to a fellow artist:

We have had a remarkable autumn—beautiful and without rain. Youwould have loved it all—those golden tones along the river and the lovely atmosphere prevailing over all! At this time of the year the sun is low and casts deeper and longer shadows, giving a greater feeling of bulk and weight to all in nature. The red gums are particularly fine and since you were here I have made many more studies of them. But, good night it is already late, and it smells like frost outside, which means another beautiful morning.[3]

Rebecca Andrews

© Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 2008
Andrews, Hans Heysen, exhibition book, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 2008, p 70

[1] Later watercolours of this tree include Morning mist, 1918, (The clearing, early morning) 1919 and Autumn Morning, 1928–30, which won the Crouch Prize at Ballarat in 1931

[2] Heysen letter to Lionel Lindsay, 7 July 1909. La Trobe Collection, State Library of Victoria, MS 9242

[3] Heysen letter to Lionel Lindsay, quoted in Lionel Lindsay, ‘The Art of Hans Heysen’, in Sydney Ure Smith, Bertram Stevens Bertram & Charles Lloyd Jones (eds), The art of Hans Heysen an Art in Australia book. Angus & Robertson. Sydney. 1920, p 11