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image icon 'Mystic morn', 1904

'Mystic morn', 1904
Art Gallery of South Australia


This is a large oil painting (122.8 cm x 184.3 cm) by Hans Heysen (1877-1968). Painted in 1904, it shows a small group of cattle threading their way through a group of saplings early in the morning. The cattle are entering the picture from the left and lead the eye towards a distant clearing that is just visible through the thicket of trunks. In the foreground is a shallow pool.

Educational value

This resource is useful because it:

  • is a Federation era (1900-14) landscape - the large landscapes by Heysen, W C Piguenit (1836-1914), Frederick McCubbin (1855-1917), Arthur Streeton (1867-1943) and Walter Withers (1854-1913) expressed the spirit of Federation by celebrating in their large canvases special qualities of 'Australianness', which the artists believed could best be found in the Australian bush; implied in the large scale of the works and their subjects (pastoral scenes and sweeping plains), and the dramatic play of sunlight, was the idea that these vast inland lonely valleys offered special experiences that could almost be described as spiritual
  • is an acknowledged masterpiece by Heysen - Heysen was critically acclaimed in his own lifetime as one of the great figures in, and exponents of, Australian art 'in its most robust and truly national expression'; writers have observed that 'Mystic morn' communicates a sense of gentle beauty through its interpretation of soft early morning light and its response to the swaying rhythms of the twisted saplings: the sun has barely risen and a lingering mist has diffused the sun's light into a golden glow; this glow permeates the background and has turned the distant stand of trees into floating forms that seem barely tethered by their slender trunks
  • demonstrates Heysen's ability to engage with local light - the idea of an 'Australian light' was an issue for many Australian landscapists in the later 19th century; in the second half of the 1890s, the bright light blue-gold colour combinations that characterised much of the work of the Heidelberg School gave way to sombre tones and pearly-grey colour palettes, associated with evening or early morning subjects; in 'Mystic morn', for example, the sapling stand is engulfed in the mist-diffused light of the early morning sun, while the shallow pool in the foreground provides a convenient patch of shadow to offset the lighter tones of the trees in the middle distance
  • shows impressive control of composition - Heysen's first-hand observation of the work of British, Dutch and Italian artists had taught him how to use compositional elements such as the placement of objects to achieve dramatic effects; this is particularly evident in the way that the artist has positioned the four saplings in the foreground of this work to divide the horizontal image into sections; the rhythmical curving of the trunks create additional visual interest
  • is an excellent example of Heysen's ability to combine naturalism (the close observation of trees, grass and cattle) and symbolism (the golden light and extended sapling forms) to create an image that celebrates the extraordinary nature of ordinary things and everyday moments
  • is a direct expression of one of Hans Heysen's best known comments: that the sun and light were his religion
  • was the first work by Heysen to be acquired by the Art Gallery of South Australia, in 1904.