Maurice van Essche (1906 - 1977)

Maurice van Essche was born in 1906 in Antwerp, Belgium, moving to Brussels with his family when he was five years old. In 1924 he studied at the Brussels Academy of Fine Art under James Ensor. Although he interrupted his studies at the Academy in order to earn a living, working in a stained-glass studio and later in wallpaper design, he painted continuously, and also worked as a freelance cartoonist. He became a member of the group ‘La Jeune Peinture Belge’ (Young Belgian Painters) in 1930, and in 1933 continued his art studies in France under Henri Matisse. He subsequently participated in several solo and group exhibitions in both Belgium and France until 1939.

Maurice van Essche travelled to the Belgian Congo on a year-long government-sponsored trip in 1939. Because of the German occupation of his native land at the start of the Second World War, he decided to go into exile, and travelled to South Africa.

He arrived in Cape Town in 1940 at the age of 34. A mature artist, Van Essche interpreted African humanity and the sun-drenched landscape from a personal perspective, which he expressed in broad abstract terms with an aesthetic sensibility and poetic simplicity. Van Essche remarked that his approach was based on the premise that “painting is an intimate dialogue between the painter and life” (Büchner, 1967). Carl Büchner writes that van Essche’s arrival in South Africa marks a shift in his career: both the beginning of a new period as well as the consolidation of the impressions and subsequent stylistic changes that resulted from his Congo trip.

Van Essche lectured at the Wits Technical Art School from 1943 until 1945, and also began exhibiting in both Cape Town and Johannesburg. He became a significant member of the New Group, and in 1946 founded the ‘Continental School of Art’ in Cape Town. He later lectured at the Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town from 1952, and was appointed Professor of Fine Art in 1962. He was awarded the Gold Medal Award of Honour for Painting by the ‘Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns’ in 1966.

Discussing Van Essche’s stylistic influences and development, Büchner writes: “Van Essche’s early appraisal of French thought and painting broadened his creative imagination, adding something of subtlety and sophistication to the more rugged sphere of Flemish Expressionism into which he had been born”.

During the mid-1960’s, Van Essche’s work developed a pervasive metaphysical element which Büchner believed suggested “a poetic introspection, an ever deepening nostalgia, drawing him to the magical atmosphere of his visionary world”. As Büchner notes, “The artist’s preoccupation with solitude, with mysterious planes and vertiginous voids, has brought a strange detached serenity to his paintings. Yet, from beyond their seclusion they continue to communicate their human message”.

Van Essche’s compassion for humanity and the timelessness of his landscapes are expressed in his paintings of Cape fisher folk, portraits of noble Malay women and working class people eking out a living on the plains of the arid Karoo. The sentiment and atmosphere of his paintings are enhanced by his trademark palette of deep reds and blues, earthy pinks, ochre’s and greys, often set off by vibrant blacks and whites.

In 1970, Van Essche retired from his position at the Michaelis School and took a lengthy trip to Europe. Due to his dwindling health, he was unable to attend the significant Prestige Retrospective Exhibition of his work held at the South African National Gallery and Pretoria Art Museum in 1974. He died in Marin Sussinges in France in 1977, after suffering several heart attacks. Esmé Berman writes that he continued to paint until the end, often against the doctor’s orders – still occupied with the African figures and still life compositions that defined his oeuvre.


Berman, E. (1996). Art and Artists of South Africa, Southern Book Publishers: Western Cape, 115-117.

Büchner, C. (1967). Van Essche (Monograph), Tafelberg: Cape Town.

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

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