Hans HEYSEN | Droving into the light

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

Droving into the light 1914-21
oil on canvas
121.9 (h) x 152.4 (w) cm
Gift of Mr W H Vincent, 1922


Although this large painting ostensibly deals with the droving of sheep, it chiefly celebrates the magnificence of Australian eucalyptus trees. Nevertheless, the combination of a nationalistic gum-tree motif with a theme of end-of-day homecoming is symbolic of a new age: a unified Commonwealth of Australia had been created and was still in the process of formation. Droving into the light is one of Australia’s greatest Federation pictures.

Heysen here presents his finest display of visual choreography, directing us through a triumphal gateway of monumental gums to a sunbathed verdant landscape beyond. Its disarming harmony is based on a complex play of dynamic compositional elements which rescue it from potential banality.

Heysen sweeps the viewer into the scene by positioning the dawdling sheep and sheepdog in the middle foreground. From there eyes are led across the dirt road to a small but significant highlight on the curve of the base of the large centre-right River Red Gum. This fissure of lights leads the viewer’s eye anticlockwise up the trunk and across its overhanging gum tips and down the trunk of a more distant inclined tree on the left, and once more into the foreground, where the impetus of the lone drover, emerging from the shadows on the right, returns the viewer deep into the vortex of light. Originally titled Into the light, it is Heysen’s most successful use of light in all his eucalypt paintings in oil.

Apparent naturalness disguises the extent of Heysen’s reworkings. The bravura composition rests upon the River Red Gum right of centre, and in particular on the delightful tension created by the small space between its overhanging gum tips and the trunk of the large tree, foreground left. The River Red Gum was in fact an afterthought. Heysen recalled in 1954 that it was introduced to remedy a compositional disharmony:

… I realised the weakness of the composition and repainted portions, introducing the large central Red Gum. This helped to bind the two sides and made a great improvement, materially enhancing the whole conception.

Droving into the light is a masterpiece of Australian art and one of the Art Gallery of South Australia’s most popular paintings. Above all, its glowing effects encapsulate Heysen’s love of light: ‘It’s a great life to feel you can open your lungs, swing your arms and shout whenever you like on a hilltop flooded in sunshine …’[2]

Tracey Lock-Weir

© Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 2008
Andrews, Hans Heysen, exhibition book, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 2008, p 68


[1] Heysen letter to Mr Kenrick, 10 July 1954, Art Gallery of Western Australia (Heysen file)

[2] Heysen letter to Lional Lindsay, 20 March 1912 (quoted I  Colin Thiele, Heysen of Hahndorf, Rigby, Adelaide, 1968, p 288