Jacobus Hendrik Pierneef

Jacobus Hendrik (Henk) Pierneef (usually referred to as Pierneef) (13 August 1886 Pretoria – 4 October 1957 Pretoria), was a South African landscape artist, generally considered to be one of the best of the old South African masters. His distinctive style is widely recognised and his work was greatly influenced by the South African landscape.

Pierneef was born in Pretoria, from Dutch and Boer parentage. He started his high school career at the Staatsmodelschool (literally “model state school”) there, where he took his first art classes, but it was interrupted by the Second Boer War. Due to the war, the Pierneef family decided to move back to the Netherlands in 1901. While there he studied at the Rotterdamse Kunstakademie. During this time, he also came into contact with the works of the old masters, which left a lasting impression on him.

Pierneef held his first solo exhibition in 1913, to great critical acclaim, some even describing his work as that of a genius, which inspired him greatly. His second solo exhibition was held two years later and was also very well received. During this period, he also did various illustrations for a periodicals and books. In 1918, Pierneef left the State Library and started a career as an art lecturer at the Heidelberg (South Africa) College of Education. In that year he also painted the bush camp of Anton van Wouw of which two versions remains to today. One with, and one without visitors. During these camping adventures Van Wouw and Pierneef talked, sketched, fished for kurper and drank a great deal of coffee.

During the following year, he also started teaching drawing at the Pretoria College of Education. These positions gave him the opportunity to focus on his art and he participated in many successful solo and group exhibitions during 1920 to 1921. Due to the recognition that he received, Pierneef realised that he was setting the trend for a unique South African style. Personally, it was a difficult time in his life – his wife Agatha suffered from a mental disorder and also started to lose her sight. Pierneef resigned as lecturer and became a full-time painter in 1923, due to differences of opinion regarding the curriculum with the Department of Education.

In 1925 he had an exhibition in Johannesburg and it was clear that the fifty works on show showed a new vitality and enthusiasm. In 1925 the couple went to Europe were Pierneef worked hard to promote himself but also to learn about the different art movements. In the same year he also had an exhibition in the Netherlands and it was especially the Bushmen drawings that sparked great interest. In 1926 they returned on a ship which sailed along the east cost of Africa and he sketched the ports where they docked. In 1927 after the birth of his daughter Pierneef had a very successful exhibition of 86 works in Pretoria.

Pierneef visited South West Africa (now Namibia) from 1923 to 1924, where he sketched extensively for paintings that would later be completed in his studio. These would later be considered some of his best works.

In 1928 Pierneef shocked the traditionalists by including some abstract modern and as some called it ” Futuristic ” works in an exhibition. These were not accepted as well as his traditional works that he became known for and after bad reviews from people like Anton Van Wouw, he had to revert back to his old style.

Pierneef accepted a commission in 1929 to paint 32 panels for the interior of the then-new Johannesburg Railway Station, a task he completed by 1932. Since 2002 the complete set of thirty two panels, twenty eight landscape and four tree scenes, is on long term loan from the Transnet Foundation to the Rupert Art Foundation and have also been exhibited in the Jan Rupert Centre in Graaff-Reinet. The panels are considered to be some of his best work.

He died in 1957.

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