Anton Van Wouw (1862-1945)
The establishment of a Western sculptural tradition in South Africa can largely be attributed to the work of Anton van Wouw. Besides the work of the 18th century German sculptor Anton Anreith, who worked at the Cape from 1783 until 1822, a Western European sculptural tradition had not been established in South Africa at the time of Van Wouw’s arrival (Duffey, 2008). After his emigration to South Africa, he quickly established himself as the foremost sculptor of both monumental public works and smaller bronze sculptures in his adopted country.
Anton Van Wouw was born in Driebergen in the province of Utrecht, Holland in 1862. He was educated at the Rotterdam Academy of Art; originally concentrating on sketching and drawing, but later moving towards modelling. “Always he found his bent lay in modelling, and he became more and more attracted towards it” (Cohen, 1938:14). He studied under Vieillevoye at the Academy, and later in the studio of the sculptor Joseph Graven (Duffey, 2008).
Cohen (1938:14) writes of Van Wouw’s decision to move to South Africa in 1890, “Van Wouw whilst looking at photographs of the Transvaal Boers, remarked that these must be brave folk and that he would like to live amongst them […] Soon he was on his way to South Africa, and straightaway proceeded to Pretoria.” Initially he could not find commissions, and decided to take up an offer to work at a gunsmith’s workshop. In 1908 he shared a studio with Frans Oerder in Pretoria, and the two became close friends.
Preceding the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War, Van Wouw was commissioned to carry out a monument of President Kruger, which today stands at Church Square in Pretoria. This helped establish his reputation among the Afrikaner establishment, and following the war he was commissioned to carry out the National Women’s Memorial in Bloemfontein and a frieze for Pretoria’s main Post Office. He subsequently began receiving numerous requests for work, and he moved to Johannesburg in 1906 in order to carry out commissions for the mining world – mostly depicting life on the mines. He also completed a number of architectural works; carving sculptures for the outside of buildings or making decorative plaster works to adorn buildings such as the Volksraad, the Standard Bank Building and the Cullinan Building in Pretoria. In 1907 Van Wouw established the African Art Union and its magazine African Art Journal, together with Frank Emley, Earl Roberts, Herbert Evans and Harry McCormick.
Although he carried out a number of drawings and paintings during his early years, it is his sculpture that defines his career and marks his influence on the history of the South African sculptural tradition. Along with the larger monuments, Van Wouw began carrying out smaller detailed sculptures and busts, which were cast in bronze in Italy – mainly at the Massa and the Nisini foundries in Rome (Duffey, 2008). In works such as ‘The Bushman hunter’, ‘The dagga smoker’, ‘The Basuto witness’ and ‘The mealiepap eater’, he demonstrates his skill as a sculptor by his attention to textures, emotion, facial expressions, and overall composition.
Van Wouw did not like to work from sketches or photographs – always relying on live models and painstaking “contemplation of the human form.” According to Duffey (2008), his sculptures made from photographs are not as successful as the ones made from models. His models often had to pose for many days and were most often the black men who worked for him; his servant, Korhaan, who was from a Bushman clan, served as an important model for his work, including for ‘the Bushman hunter’ and ‘Bust of a Bushman’. Duffey (2008:77) writes of the works: “All these small sculptures do not only attest to Van Vouw’s meticulous workmanship but also his profound knowledge of his subject matter, eventually entailing that each individual work of art not only possesses minute detailing but also inner power and monumentality.” He had his first solo exhibition in Johannesburg in 1908, where he exhibited 16 of these small sculptures. His work was also shown at an exhibition in London in 1909.
During and after the First World War, Van Wouw carried out a number of smaller busts of Afrikaner heroes, and served on the editorial board of Die Brandwag; he also produced a number of high and low relief panels throughout these years. The Kingdom of the Netherlands awarded Van Wouw the Cross of the Knightly Order of Oranje-Nassau after the Women’s Memorial was unveiled in December of 1913, two years after he and the architect Frans Soff had begun the commission. In 1917 he became a member of the South African Society of Artists.
Van Wouw was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Pretoria in 1936, and a Medal of Honour for sculpture by the “Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns” in 1937. In 1939 he completed the ‘Mother and children’ sculpture for the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria, and a large bas-relief panel for Voortrekker High School in Boksburg.
“Van Wouw worked because to him it was a need and a pleasure. He never worked for the favour of any art critic or sought the favour of anyone” (Duffy, 2008: 208). He did not experiment nor follow tendencies within the arts. “With regards to his method of work in general, Van Wouw was clearly a product of the nineteenth-century European sculptural tradition. The dominant characteristic of this period was realism – life-like beauty of the face and figure in the classical tradition. Sculptor, founder and patineur worked tirelessly as a team to reach this ultimate aim” (Duffey, 2008:206).
“Van Wouw is essentially a painstaking artist. He scores by attention to detail. And whenever one sees his work it is the detailed finish which strikes one so forcibly. It is the fine observation in expression, attitude and mannerism that add the finishing touches to his works. On the score alone of taking infinite pains he can justly be considered a great artist (Cohen, 1938: 30).”
Berman, E. (1996). Art and Artists of South Africa, Southern Book Publishers: Western Cape, 472-473.
Cohen, M.J.(1938). Anton Van Wouw: Sculptor of South African Life. Johannesburg: Radford, Adlington, Ltd.
Duffey, A.E.(2008). Anton Van Wouw: The Smaller Works. Pretoria: Protea Book House.
Ogilvie, G. (1988). The Dictionary of South African Painters and Sculptors. Everard Read: Johannesburg.
© Johans Borman Fine Art