Jacob Hendrik Pierneef (1886 – 1957)

JH Pierneef
JH Pierneef
Dr. Anton Hendriks, a contemporary of Pierneef and director of the Johannesburg Art Gallery from 1937-64, stated that Pierneef had become the definitive South African painter: “Pierneef painted Africa. His landscapes were different from anything seen in paint before. Baines, Oerder and others had painted the same scenes, but Pierneef saw them with new eyes. He created an original style out of this new subject matter”.

Pierneef was born on 13 August 1886 - the year Johannesburg was founded. In that same year his father Gerrit Pierneef was the builder of the “Golden City’s” first building constructed of wood and galvanised iron at 53 Market Street.

Born and raised in Pretoria, he attended the State Model School where he excelled at drawing. During the Pierneef family’s temporary exile in Holland (1899-1902) at the time of the Boer War, he received some formal art tuition at the Rotterdam Academy. By the family’s return to Pretoria the young Pierneef had decided that he wanted to be a painter. Although he had to start earning an income from the age of 17, first as an assistant in a tobacco shop, and later at the State Library, he devoted as much time as possible to his painting. From his godfather, the sculptor Anton van Wouw, he received encouragement and advice and the painter Frans Oerder introduced him to painting in oils. It was the Irish artist George Smithard who taught Pierneef the graphic art principles of etching and woodcuts, and impressed on the budding artist the importance of developing his own style based on the uniqueness of his indigenous environment.

Inspired by the success of his first solo exhibition in 1913 at age 27, Pierneef continued pursuing his dream of becoming a full time artist. After a brief spell as art lecturer at the Heidelberg College of Education in 1918, he realised his dream the following year. During the early 1920’s Pierneef had a number of successful exhibitions in Pretoria, Stellenbosch, Cape Town and Namibia and completed his first commission at the Ficksburg High School which consisted of 8 panels based on his study of Bushman paintings.

The inspiration for his individual style came from his studies of the primitive rock art of the San people, as well as the decorative art of the black peoples of Southern Africa. Pierneef was enthused by the clear perception and effective simplification applied by these early indigenous artists, as he considered their approach accurate and definitive of the essential characteristics of the African landscape and its beasts. As young artist he copied numerous Bushman drawings, hunting for them in the former rock shelters, and also proposed a greater affinity to this art form in public addresses as early as 1919. His partiality for balance, simplicity of design and strong composition - which became his trademark, was therefore undoubtedly influenced by the earliest artists of the sub-continent. Pierneef’s admiration for the rock artists was epitomised by the copy of a drawing of a resting eland he had his friend, the sculptor Coert Steynberg, carve in relief into the door of the gateway leading to the “kraal” of his home “Elangeni” – a Zulu word meaning “in the sun”.

Of Pierneef’s discovery of Namibia in 1924, NJ Coetzee writes in ‘Pierneef, Land and Landscape’: “He felt an immediate affinity with the arid stretches of the Namibian landscape. This marked a turning point in his perception of himself as an artist, as well as changing the emphasis he placed on certain aspects of the landscape, like the wide open spaces and the subtle colour renderings. Here, one may speculate, Pierneef could put the advice of Smithard and others into practice; here he could have a sense of being unpreceded and working without the benefit of the examples of others.”

The influence on Pierneef’s work due to the exposure to the new art movements and trends in Europe during his visit to that continent in 1925 and1926 (at the age of 39) was secondary to the artistic impression made by the indigenous art and landscapes of Africa. The geometric quality of his work can also be ascribed to his graphic training and quest for economy and harmony of line and form even before he met the Dutch artist and art teacher Willem van Konijenburg who promoted a theory of strong mathematical and geometric principles of composition. Pierneef’s quest for establishing his own artistic identity led to some experimentation with abstract expressionism in 1928. The paintings on that exhibition shocked the traditionalists like Van Wouw, and Pierneef settled on his recognizable style of strongly linear, simplified forms with subdued colours.

The peak of Pierneef’s development as an artist is marked by the 32 panels he was commissioned to produce for Park Station in Johannesburg in 1929. The painting of the ‘Station Panels’ was a daunting task both in number and size. The 28 larger canvasses measured approximately 150 x 140 cm’s each, and depicted landscapes of different parts of Southern Africa. This project created enormous publicity for the artist, as the Railways were responsible for the promotion of tourism both nationally and internationally, and Johannesburg Railway Station became the main point of embarkation for visitors, whether tourists or businessmen, as the age of air transport had yet to arrive. The ‘Station Panels’ were installed by the end of 1932, and included four smaller panels of indigenous trees. The enormous number of preliminary studies done in preparation of this commission provided Pierneef with source material for a great number of paintings, watercolours and linocuts with different variations on these themes.

Pierneef loved the Bushveld passionately and it is the one theme that appears repeatedly throughout his oeuvre of work. These paintings bear testimony to the artist’s stylistic ability in assuring balance of form, colour and composition to effectively evoke an atmosphere that would communicate the mood of peacefulness and serenity found in the unspoilt African bush. The majestic tree, often portrayed as dominating the landscape, is elevated to a symbolisation of the mystery of the Bushveld which captured the artist’s imagination from an early age and held it throughout his career.

Pierneef’s cultural contribution in promoting the Arts to his countrymen and his specific stylisation of the African landscape devoid of human activity is often erroneously interpreted as evident of his supposed support for an Afrikaner Nationalism that excluded the indigenous peoples that shared his native land. This opportunistic notion is nullified by the overwhelming evidence of his great respect and admiration for the indigenous artists that inspired him. Like them he soaked himself in the African soil aiming to capture the spirit of the land in his own unique style - as they have so successfully done before him. His involvement with cultural organizations, the theatre, writers and poets was motivated by a desire to establish a cultural identity for the fledgling nation he was part of, and not by a hidden political agenda.

Long before his death Pierneef expressed a wish which defined the source of his inspiration: “Bury me under a camel thorn tree, with its straight manly character guarding me, and its roots deep in the soil of Africa”.

JH Pierneef died on 4 October 1957, and is regarded as one of the most important South African art pioneers. His truly unique and individual style will always be definitive when evaluating African landscape painting.

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