Nora Heysen, daughter of the artist, Hans Heysen, was born in Adelaide in 1911. She studied at the school of Fine Arts in Adelaide and, in 1934, travelled to London where she studied for two years at the Central School of Art. She returned to Australia in 1937. In 1938, she became the first woman to win the prestigious Archibald Prize for portraiture.
On 18 October 1943, Heysen was appointed the first female official war artist. Her initial task was to paint studio portraits of the commanding officers of the women's auxiliary services.
In April 1944, Heysen travelled to New Guinea to record the activities of Australian nurses. There, she found life difficult but stimulating. She was particularly interested in drawing the New Guinea people, as well as portraying the lighter side of the war, for which she was criticized by the head of the official war art scheme, Lieutenant Colonel John Treloar.
Heysen was also frustrated by her inability to travel to the front because of the danger and the lack of facilities for women. Her painting style was affected by these difficulties and the colours in her paintings became darker and drabber. She spent a total of seven months in New Guinea and returned to Australia suffering from dermatitis.
After having her appointment extended, Heysen visited an Army unit in the Sydney Hospital to portray the activities of the Blood Bank. In May 1945, she was sent to Queensland to record the activities of the RAAF nursing sisters who served on medical evacuation flights.
Heysen completed over 170 works of art during her appointment.