Jan Ernst Abraham Volschenk (1853 – 1936)

JEA Volschenk was born to Dutch parents, who farmed near Riversdale in the Southern Cape, in 1853. He attended school in Riverdale and later joined Reitz & Versfeld, a firm of attorneys, as bookkeeper, while painting in his spare time.

In 1893 Volschenk accompanied the Reitz family on a study trip to Europe visiting art galleries in the UK, France, The Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Switzerland. Stimulated by the art that he had seen overseas, he joined the SA Drawing Club in 1894 and exhibited with them.

In 1899 he married Helen Smallberger and had nine daughters, one of whom, Vera Volschenk, went on to become an artist.

In 1904 at the age of 51, Volschenk gave up his professional occupation as accountant and turned his full attention to painting. He was an entirely self taught landscape painter, working predominantly in oil, though occasionally in watercolour, and also produced a number of wood engravings.

Volschenk’s subject matter was his home landscape - the Langeberg mountain range with its rocky peaks, the yellow-green shrubs and veld with the pink Cape heath and bright aloes. He painted the farms and scenes of the nearby river, sometimes venturing further to Stilbaai, Knysna, George and Worcester. Volschenk’s compositions seldom varied from three horizontal planes - the foreground, hills and sky, and his paintings can be described as ‘snapshots’ or almost photographic renderings executed with meticulous attention to detail.

Volschenk was not concerned with structural designs or theories – his passion was painting a realistic depiction of the scene before his eyes carefully and painstakingly. In his early works he used deep colours for the vegetation and varnishes to conceal his brushstrokes. As his confidence and skill grew he began to use a lighter palette and his paintings became more romanticised, with mist on the mountains tinted by sunsets rich in warm oranges and gold. The ‘coloured-in’ outlines seen in his earlier works were replaced by a more painterly technique and he began to ‘draw with the brush’.

Although Volschenk rarely exhibited, his works found popular support. His ‘romantic naturalism’ brought about a new appreciation for art among the Afrikaner community, paving the way for the artists that followed. His work was publicised by Ernest Lezard of Johannesburg and in 1924 he had the first of several of his landscapes reproduced by E Schweickerdt in Pretoria.

Jan Volschenk suffered a stroke and died in Riversdale in 1936.

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