Pieter Wenning (1873 – 1921)
Pieter Willem Frederik Wenning was born in The Hague, Southern Holland, to a family with long artistic associations: Boonzaier and Lipschitz write of his family that, “for many generations one or other member had been either a practicing artist or a dealer in artists’ materials”. He began to develop a passion for painting from an early age; the availability of art materials and prints from his father’s shop and contact with his cousin Ype Wenning, a well known Frisian painter, were contributing factors.
Following school, Pieter’s parents dissuaded him from choosing a career in art due to an illness which had left his heart weakened. Wenning obeyed and took a job at the Dutch Railways, receiving swift promotion due to his solid work ethic. His language fluency allowed him to work as a foreign correspondent in the Clearing Department, giving him an opportunity to travel to Europe and England, where he was able to visit museums and galleries and keep abreast with modern art movements.
Wenning devoted all his spare time to painting, and his weekends, when he could paint freely, became his favorite time. According to Boonzaier and Lipschitz, “he painted out of doors, and even the heavy rains and cutting winds of Friesland could not daunt him”. Wenning’s compassion for the poorer classes meant that he often painted in the impoverished areas of Zaandam, focusing on the humble dwellings of the residents. Unfortunately, “little remains of his work of this period for he had little faith in his efforts and in despair destroyed his paintings one after the other.” (Boonzaier and Lipshitz, 1949: 2)
In the wake of the revolutionary upheavals that transformed Europe in the early twentieth century, culminating in the Great Railway Strike across the continent in 1902 and 1903, Wenning joined the ‘blue-collar’ workers in their strike at the Dutch Railways, despite his status as a ‘white-collar’ worker. The strike did not yield concessions, and all who had been involved were immediately dismissed, resulting in Wenning’s unemployment and the beginning of economic woes that would plague him for years to come. His marriage to a young widow with two children added much responsibility to his already heavy burden.
After finding work with H.A.U.M. de Bussy & Jacques Dusseau, Holland’s largest publishing firm, Wenning was offered a transfer to South Africa to work as bookkeeper in the Pretoria branch, arriving in South Africa in 1905, at 32 years of age.
In 1909, after working mostly in watercolour and pen and ink, he was able to work in oils when a friend and neighbour, Professor Janse, gave him his first colour box and brushes. In 1910, De Bussy’s decided to expand their business, and started to provide art materials to the residents of Pretoria. Wenning was put in charge of this new department, to his delight, and began to meet many of the artists active in the city, such as JH Pierneef and Frans Oerder. In 1911 they formed the Pretoria society of artists known as ‘The Individualists’, and Wenning became the secretary.
De Bussy’s opened an office in Johannesburg between 1912-1913, and Wenning was appointed as manager of the art department. In 1913, Wenning was sent by De Bussy’s to the Cape, where he met D.C. Boonzaier and forged a friendship that would last until his death. Boonzaier was among the first of Wenning’s friends and associates to realize his potential as an artist, and, as quoted in Boonzaier and Lipshitz, “decided to do all in my power to rescue him from the drudgery of this little shop, where he felt so unhappy, and from which he so ardently desired to break away”. Though he was by no means the only friend who believed that Wenning should be helped to follow his natural talent, it was Boonzaier who formulated the plan that would allow Wenning his first extended painting trip to the Cape. He approached a number of his friends and requested that they each put some money towards a fund which would cover Wenning’s stay in Cape Town for three months in 1916. By this time, Wenning had left De Bussy’s, and was working in the bookshop of a friend, Van Shaik, who gladly allowed him the three months’ leave. Later in that year, Ernest Lezard, the Johannesburg auctioneer, set up a similar fund to allow Wenning a second extended trip to the Cape, though in this case the money would be paid back by means of an auction of all Wenning’s work from the trip. Thus Wenning was able to escape the drab scenery of Johannesburg for a time, marking the turning point in his career.
For the next five years, the last of his life, Wenning lived mostly in the Cape, interrupted by short, unexpected visits to his family, and trips to Lourenco Marques and Zanzibar of which very little is known. Between 1916 and 1919, he painted between 300 and 400 oils, and by the end of that period, his work had gained much of the respect it deserved, though it was still not making him very much money. His health had taken a turn for the worse, and despite his friends’ efforts to care for him and convince him to care for himself, he could still be seen canvas in hand, trudging through the rain, looking for subject matter to paint.
During Wenning’s last visit to the Cape in 1920, he felt sick and dejected as his body could not cope with any amount of strain. He finally gave up painting in bad weather, and restricted himself to nearby scenery during good weather, though, on the one occasion on which he did wander further afield, he collapsed, and was only discovered that evening and helped home by some passers-by.
He was moved to a hospital soon after, and from there, he was taken back to Pretoria by his son, where he was committed to the Zuid Afrikaanse Hospitaal. There was nothing to be done for him, and he lay in his hospital bed, feverish and coughing violently, until eventually he passed on the evening of January 24, 1921.
“With the passing of Pieter Wenning in 1921 South Africa lost the finest artist she had hitherto produced. His broad and modern outlook, his choice of subjects, his bold technique, his originality and his disregard for the banal, distinguish him among his local contemporaries.” (Boonzaier and Lipshitz, 1949: 48)
Wenning’s work is characterized by a heavy, dark outline and energetic and free brushwork in bold impasto paint, as well as a colour palette of varied greens, rich browns and an effective use of black, white and red. But “perhaps Wenning’s favourite and most expressive colour, which he employed with the greatest subtlety and taste in his work, is grey, in all its endless nuances” (Boonzaier and Lipshitz, 1949: 55). Although his work was unpopular during his Pretoria years, and friends tried to convince him to paint in a more popular style, Wenning always stuck to his beliefs: “He preferred to paint what he liked, rather than pander to a market he could not respect; and throughout his life he retained this artistic integrity.” (Boonzaier and Lipshitz, 1949: 48)
Berman, E. (1996). Art and Artists of South Africa, Southern Book Publishers: Western Cape, 115-117.
Boonzaier, D.C. and Lipschitz, I.L. (1949). Wenning, Unie-Volkspers Beperk: Cape Town.
Wood Hunter, C. (2009). “Peter Willem Frederik Wenning” in South African Art Times.
© Johans Borman Fine Art