Jacob Hendrik Pierneef

(1886 – 1957)

About

Jacob Hendrik Pierneef was born in 1886 in Pretoria to Dutch immigrant parents. He left South Africa for Holland as part of the deportation during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) and it was there that Pierneef attended the Rotterdam Academy before his return to Pretoria in 1902. In 1925, at the age of 39, Pierneef again returned to Europe and was exposed to the development of Post-Impressionism, a rejection or altered position from Impressionism following its halted state from the onset of the First World War in 1914, and the move into monumental decorative art. 

Pierneef’s return to Europe marked the turning point in his visual and theoretical approach to composition and art making that remained in all his paintings for the entirety of his career. Mainly influenced by the school of thought developed by the Dutch artist and the oretician Willem Van Konijnenburg, which focused on the mathematical logic that should be employed when looking at a subject and then to project the underlying geometric structure into a work. These more graphical elements and styles stem from Egyptian and Assyrian art and Pierneef found a central relationship between this and African art which he translated into his landscapes. He continued to study Bushman paintings, looking at the flat surfaces as well as the schematic and geometrical principles which were used as the major part of each artwork’s construction. 

Pierneef’s early works emulate these geometric principles and use simplified flat planes of colour with strong line and structural qualities. Although these principles are affluent in the development of Pierneef’s work, his greatest concern was the pursuit of harmony, order and balance which he reflected through the nature of his subject matter, primarily landscapes. Most of Pierneef’s landscapes that were completed between 1928 and 1935 exemplify his deliberate use of these geometric principles. This theory on his approach is not unlike that of Dutch born artist Piet Mondrian, whose final outcome resulted in complete abstraction. However, Pierneef was more concerned with the “decorative possibilities of his geometrical experiments and did not carry them to an abstract conclusion” (Berman, E. 1993:48), therefore marking a vital difference between his own interpretation and application introduced to him by Van Konijnenburg and his redefinition of these artistic and philosophical terms in a South African environment. 

This approach gradually became less analytical and began to form Pierneef’s signature style of work in his linocuts, drawings and paintings. As Pierneef’s career advanced the philosophical and theological basis of the teachings he was influenced by were no longer deliberately delved into and completely fell away over time showing an absence of conspicuous geometry, but left a firm establishment of the equilibrium and proportion that was now forever inherent in his works.

Pierneef found a lifelong love of painting the Highveld and Transvaal areas of South Africa, rarely including figures or structures and if so it was often dwarfed into insignificance against the imposition and magnificence of the landscape rendered around it. His affluence as an artist and his passion for art as a teacher created a new outlook for landscape painting and marked a significant shift in thought and approach, making him one of the most pre-eminent old masters in South African art.

  • Chronology

    1886

    Born in Pretoria

    1900

    Pierneef family deported to Holland via the East African Coast

    1902

    Returned to Pretoria with the end of the Anglo-Boer War

    1910

    Sold his first oil painting ‘Meintjies Kop’ to Emil Schweikerdt

    1912

    Appointed at the State Library in Pretoria

    Exhibited with Smithard and Pieter Wenning as a member of ‘The Individualists’ Group’

    1917

    Elected as a member of South African Society of Artists

    Drew illustrations for ‘Die Brandwag’

    1920-23

    Appointed lecturer in art in Pretoria and Heidelberg Normal Colleges

    Showed his work in Cape Town and Stellenbosch

    1923

    Decided on a fulltime career in art

    Painting expedition to South West Africa

    1924

    Divorced his first wife and remarried Marian Frances Schoop (witnessed by G.W. Pilkington)

    Received his first commission, murals for a school in Ficksburg

    1925

    Travelled to Europe: exhibited in Amsterdam

    Met Anton Hendriks – invited him to visit South Africa

    Impressed by the theories of the Dutch painter, Willem van Konijnenburg

    1926

    Returned home via the East Coast

    Painted a number of his most spontaneous impressionistic pictures such as ‘Mozambique’ in the Johannesburg Art Gallery

    Began to experiment along unconventional lines – both divisionistic and what he referred to as ‘geometric’ styles, created ‘Study in Blue’.

    Perfected a complex technique based on a casein medium

    1929

    t was announced in the press that Pierneef had received a commission for mural-panels for the new Johannesburg railway station

    1932

    November: The Johannesburg railway station mural-panels were completed and installed

    1933

    Commissioned to paint mural for South Africa House in London – spent two years in London

    1935

    Returned to South Africa

    1936

    Awarded Medal of Honour for Painting by South African Akademie

    1947

    Pierneef – The Man and His Workby JFW Grosskopf published

    1950

    Worked at the University College of Natal, Pietermaritzburg

    1951

    Awarded honorary Doctorate by University of Natal

    1957

    Died in Pretori

  • Exhibitions

    1911

    From this time participated in many group exhibitions in South Africa

    1912-13

    Exhibitions of ‘The Individualists’ in Pretoria

    1913

    First of many solo exhibitions held in Pretoria and The Netherlands

    1920

    Johannesburg Sketch Club Exhibition

    South African Academy Exhibition

    1921

    Solo exhibitions in the Cape Province

    1924

    South African Art, Empire Exhibition, Wembley

    1926

    Solo exhibition, Amsterdam

    1929

    Participated in joint exhibition with Fanie Eloff, Johannesburg

    1936

    Empire Exhibition, Johannesburg

    1948

    Participated in South African Art Exhibition, Tate Gallery, London

    1950

    Held 25 year Retrospective Exhibition, Pieter Wenning Gallery, Johannesburg

    1952

    Van Riebeeck Tercentenary Exhibition, Cape Town

    1953

    Held Retrospective Exhibition, Potchefstroom University for Christian High Education

    Rhodes Centenary Exhibition, Bulawayo

    1962

    Pierneef Festival, Johannesburg, Adler Fielding Gallery, Johannesburg

    1965

    Exhibition of Watercolours and Drawings, Johannesburg Art Gallery

    1970

    "The Complete Wood-Cuts of Pierneef" exhibition held, Durban Art Gallery

    1972

    Exhibition of Watercolours, Johannesburg Art Gallery

    1973

    Exhibition of the Restored Johannesburg Station panels plus associated sketches, Pretoria Art Museum

    1974-75

    Exhibition of the Marita J Pierneef Collection, University of Stellenbosch, Rand Afrikaans University and Potchefstroom University for Christian High Education.

    1979

    Station Panels installed in new Johannesburg Station Museum

    ‘South African Printmakers’, South African National Gallery, Cape Town

    1980/81

    Retrospective Exhibition of Pierneef and Van Wouw held, Pretoria Art Museum, Johannesburg Art Gallery, Durban Art Gallery, William Humphreys Art Gallery, Kimberley,

    King George VI Art Gallery, Port Elizabeth and South African National Gallery, Cape Town

    1982

    "The Pierneef Collection" exhibited, Pretoria Art Museum

    1984

    Commemorative Exhibition, Pretoria Art Museum

    1987

    Exhibition of the Johannesburg Station Panels. Johannesburg Art Gallery

  • Collections

    South African National Gallery, Cape Town

    • Johannesburg Art Gallery
    • Pretoria Art Museum
    • Durban Art Gallery
    • William Humphreys Gallery, Kimberley
    • King George VI Gallery, Port Elizabeth
    • Ann Bryant Art Gallery, East London
    • Rembrandt Art Foundation, Stellenbosch
    • University of South Africa, Pretoria
    • University of Witwatersrand Galleries
    • A C White Gallery, Bloemfontein
    • Johannesburg Railway Station Museum
    • Sandton Municipal Collection
    • Pietersburg Collection
  • Commissions

    Public Commissions

    1924

    Mural, Ficksburg High School, Orange Free State

    1929-32

    Johannesburg Railway Station Panels

    1933-35

    Murals, South Africa House, London

    1937

    Mural, ‘ss Pretoria Castle’

    1940

    Two large pictures, Johannesburg Magistrates Courts

    1955

    Broadcast House, Johannesburg

  • Awards

    1935Received the first Medal of Honour for Painting awarded by the South African Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns

    1951Received Honorary Doctorate from the University of Natal

    1957Received Honorary Doctorate of Philosophy from the University of Pretoria

    Made an Honorary member of the South African Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns

Artwork