Frans Oerder (1867-1944)

Frans David Oerder was born in Rotterdam, Holland in 1867; one of seven children. Although his father was not pleased with Oerder’s choice of art as a career, he was allowed to begin a six-year course in Decorating at the Rotterdam Academy of Art (Berman, 1996). He completed the course in five years, graduating in 1885 and winning the King William III Gold Medal bursary. Upon graduation he toured Italy, and thereafter continued his art studies in Brussels under Ernest Blanc-Garin.

In 1890 Oerder moved to South Africa. According to Esmé Berman (1975:18), Oerder “was attracted to South Africa by the enthusiasm of his elder brother who had settled in Pretoria two years before.” In Pretoria he initially found employment working as a house-painter with the De Wyn & Engelenburg firm. He was later employed as art instructor at the Staatsmeisjesskool and at the Girls High School in Pretoria, and also began drawing cartoons for local newspapers. In 1894 he rented a studio and befriended a number of artists, including the sculptor Anton van Wouw – who would remain a close friend throughout his life and with whom he shared a studio. His first solo exhibition in South Africa was held in 1896 – the same year he became a citizen of his adopted country.

Berman writes of Oerder’s contribution to the South African art tradition: “During his initial period in SA, in the very earliest years of the century, Oerder was one of the first artists – if not the first – to attempt to capture the colour, light and sense of space particular to the Transvaal landscape.” Oerder was of a traditional Dutch training, consistent in his subject matter and style: working most often on portraiture, still life and flower-pieces within the Dutch realist tradition. Berman (1996: 312) describes him as a “naturalistic painter”, writing: “he delighted in all aspects of the visual experience – the play of light and shade; the many subtle variations of a single colour; the texture of copper and the sheen of sun upon the landscape.”

Oerder was a “pioneer in portraying the nature of the [Transvaal] landscape,” as well as a respected art teacher (Berman, 1996). His influence on JH Pierneef – who studied under him for some time – is described by Berman: “Most important historically was Oerder’s communication of his landscape procedures to his pupil Pierneef. While other subsequent painters merely aped the master’s methods, Pierneef absorbed the principles of concentrated observation and developed them to achieve his own original, creative style (1996:313).”

Berman (1975:20) describes the artist’s approach as follows: “Although many of Oerder’s later works – most notably his flower-pieces – are fairly bright and colourful, colour itself was not a primary ingredient of his style. He was more concerned with tonal values in his early work and often limited his palette quite severely in order to emphasise this aspect of the composition.”

Oerder’s status in the South African art scene was reflected in 1899 when he became South Africa’s first Official War Artist during the Anglo-Boer War; commissioned by President Paul Kruger and joining the Boer forces to depict the battlefronts (Berman, 1996:484). Most of these paintings can today be found in the Bloemfontein War Museum. Following the war he travelled around parts of East Africa and received a number of commissions for portraits and landscapes.

After 18 years in South Africa, Oerder returned to Holland in 1908, where he continued building his reputation as an artist of still life and portraits. It was after his marriage to Gerda Ptilo in 1910, who was a painter of flowers, that he initiated a series of works of different flower compositions for which he became so revered. His ‘Magnolias’ became renowned after it was published by the New York Graphic Society in 1939. Berman (1975:22) writes that “for many years [it was] the biggest-selling reproduction of any still-life painting in the world.” In Europe, his still life paintings, landscapes and numerous flower-pieces became his most celebrated works, leading to his success as an artist. Oerder did not relinquish his connections with South Africa; he sent works for two Johannesburg exhibitions, one in 1923 and another in 1927, and numerous public and private galleries purchased his works. The original ‘Magnolias’ was bought by a Johannesburg art collector.

In 1939 Oerder and his wife returned to South Africa after spending 30 years in Holland, and he participated in an exhibition at the South African National Gallery in Cape Town that year. He travelled and painted around Cape Town, Natal and the northern Transvaal, finally settling and setting up his studio in Pretoria. During this period he painted a number of significant portraits, including one of Prime Minister Jan Smuts (Berman, 1996).

Oerder was a prolific and influential figure in the South African art world. He gained fame in Europe, returning to South Africa with his achievements and imparting his mark on the development of the arts in his adopted country.

Frans Oerder passed away in Pretoria in 1944.


Berman, E. (1996). Art and Artists of South Africa, Southern Book Publishers: Western Cape, 311-315.

Berman, E. (1975). The Story of South African Painting. Cape Town: AA Balkema, 18-23.

Ogilvie, G. (1988). The Dictionary of South African Painters and Sculptors. Everard Read: Johannesburg, 492-493

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