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An Old South African Master

JH Pierneef was born on 13 August 1886 in Pretoria. During 1900-1903, Pierneef and his family moved to Holland, where works of old European masters made a lasting impression on him.On the family’s return to Pretoria in 1903, Pierneef was employed at a grocer, tobacco shop and later the State Library. By the mid-1910’s Pierneef started travelling extensively, boasting his first solo exhibitions and art related talks country wide. By the mid-1920’s he undertook another influential trip to Europe, and on his return visited various countries along the east coast of Africa.His intimate knowledge of the Southern African landscape and architecture found expression in his work. Because line was so important in his art, he naturally excelled as a sketcher and graphic artist. An extensive collection of sketches and graphic works, including a large number of linocuts – many of which portray the Southern African landscape and architecture – attest to his mastery.This great South African master passed away on 4 October 1957 in his hometown Pretoria.Pierneef’s greatness has been acknowledge by, inter alia, three honorary doctorates, his works are represented world-wide in private and corporate collections, whilst it is continuously increasing in value on art auctions.

The La Motte Wine Estate boasts its permanent heritage collection in the museum and a series of 128 linocut prints displayed in various visiting areas on the estate. For 2017, the La Motte Museum presents A Tribute to the Life and Work of South African artist, Jacob Hendrik Pierneef (1886 – 1957).

In celebration of his birthday on 13 August, we share a few of his career highlights and personal milestones:

1900-03: First formal art training

During the Anglo-Boer War (South African War) Pierneef’s father was deported to the Netherlands. The family stayed in Hilversum where Pierneef attended night-classes in drawing. In July 1902 the Pierneefs settled in Rotterdam, and he enrolled at the art school Academia Erasmiana for evening classes in drawing with Prof. August Allebé. The Pierneef’s returned to Pretoria in 1903.

1908: First group exhibition

He participated in his first group exhibition with fellow contemporaries and established artists like Anton van Wouw (1876-1945) also his godfather, Hugo Naudé (1868-1941), George Smithard (1873-1919) and Pieter Wenning (1873-1921).

1910: First painting sold & First house built

Sold his first oil painting, Blik op Meintjieskop, to Emil Schweickerdt. On 16 February, he got married to his first wife Agatha Delen. He also built his first house with a studio at 25 de Waal Street, close to the Pretoria Zoo, for himself and Agatha, the couple lived there till 1923.

1911-12: Member of the Pretoria art group – The Individualists

Participated in the first two exhibitions of The Individualists. The Guild of South African Artists held their first exhibition in Johannesburg and Pierneef submitted two etchings, both were sold.

1913: First solo exhibition & meeting friend Erich Mayer

Held his first solo exhibition with 50 works on show in the JH De Bussy Building, Pretoria. The dominant themes on exhibition the willow tree and Old Pretoria houses. In the same year Pierneef met Pretoria based artist Erich Mayer (1876-1960) with whom he shared a great interest and fascination of San Rock art.

1917: Presenting & coordinating art talks

Elected as a member of the Society of South African Artists. Presented his first talks on ‘Bushmen’ art to members of the Afrikaans-Hollandse readers’ union in Pretoria and Onze Taal in Bloemfontein where he also met Reenen J. van Reenen. By the end of the year Pierneef resigned from the State Library.

1918: A full-time artist

Pierneef was employed by the Transvaal Education Department and appointed art lecturer at Pretoria and Heidelberg Normal Colleges, from February 1918 to June 1919. After resigning from the Normal College, he decided to make art his full-time career.

1920: The foundation of Pierneef as a graphic artist

Illustration work was done for various publications including Die Boerevrou and poems for JD du Toit, Totius, (1877-1953), Jan F.E. Celliers (1865-1940) and Louis Leipoldt (1880-1947). He excelled as a graphic artist, it is his linocuts and a hand full of etchings that proof his skillful use of line.

1922: First public commission

His first public commission – eight large murals for the new school hall at the Ficksburg High School (today SH Pellisier Gallery), based on copies of existing San rock art tracings by George Stow, Helena Tongue and Peter Clarke.

1923: First visit to Namibia

Travelled to South West Africa (Namibia) in April for the first time and stayed with Toon van den Heever (1894-1956). This was a productive expedition as he held an exhibition in Windhoek of 30 works on Namibia just 2 months after his arrival.

1924: Married May Pierneef

Commissioned to do a series of posters around Hartbeespoort Dam as advertisements for a land developer. During May he met his soon to be wife, Mariane Frances Schoep (35) from the Netherlands. A return trip to Namibia was undertaken in July. Upon his return in October he filed for divorce from Agate. Remarried on 18 November to Mariane (May Pierneef).

1925: Career changing visit to Europe

In July, Pierneef and May sailed off to Europe, and by August he already sold some linocut prints to the Victorian and Albert Museum. On 10 October Pierneef opened his first Europe exhibition in Heerengracht, Amsterdam, with 82 artworks. He encountered different trends and philosophies and became interested in Willem van Konijnenburg’s (1868-1943) monumental decorative style.

1926: Traveling along the east coast of Africa

The Pierneefs’ returned home via the Suez Canal down the east coast of Africa where he had the opportunity to visit various country and coastal towns like: Cap Bon, Port Said, La Palmas, Tanzania, Dar es Salaam, Zanzibar, Mombasa and Mozambique.

1927: The birth of his only child – Marita

His daughter, Marita Jennifer, was born on 4 April – a truly joyous event for the 40 year old artist.

1929: Career highlight – The Johannesburg Station Panels commission

Pierneef received a commission for large panels to decorate the then new Johannesburg Railway Station – 28 paintings of natural scenes and historic places in South Africa and four smaller studies of indigenous trees. The panels were installed and unveiled in November 1932.

1930: Meeting the Royal family

While working on the station panels, he held a large exhibition with 47 paintings in Pretoria. Princess Alice, wife of Lord Athlone, selected two paintings on this show, and two months later purchased N’tabeni (1930) from Pierneef’s studio to be donated to the National Gallery in Cape Town.

1933-34: Career highlight – The South Africa House commission

Commissioned to paint murals for the South Africa House, London. A number of artists, including sculptor Coert Steynberg (1902-1989), collaborated on this project. Additional to the murals Pierneef completed 5 paintings for the dining room of the South African House. This was the only period Pierneef was not living in Pretoria.

1936: An honoured but unhealthy period

Awarded with the Medal of Honour for Painting by the Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Taal en Lettere, for his work on the Station Panels, the South Africa House murals and contribution to African painting in general. Pierneef also suffered his first of four heart-attacks, but continued to spend much time in the veld, sketching trees and landscapes.

1938: Member of the New Group

Commissioned by the Pretoria City Council for two paintings to be donated to the Union Castle Line for their liner, the Pretoria Castle. Instead Pierneef produced one monumental painting measuring 100 x 200cm of the Union Buildings in Pretoria. Pierneef also exhibited in the second exhibition of the New Group, one of South Africa’s most influential art groups.

1939: Pierneef the architect revives

Pierneef bought a section of the farm Mopanie in the Pretoria district. He built several stone and thatch-roofed buildings forming a kraal, and named it Elangeni. South African artist Alexis Preller (1911-1975) was a neighbor of the Pierneef’s.

1941: Commissions & Exhibitions

Commissioned by the Department of Public Works to do two paintings for the new magistrate’s court in Johannesburg. They depicted Johannesburg in infancy (1886) and as a modern city (1940). The first exhibition at Elangeni was held with 53 oil painting and 13 water colours by Pierneef and sculptures by Fanie Eloff.

1945: Furthering the development and movement of Art in South Africa

Appointed chairman of a special committee of the Reserve Bank to approve the design for the country’s new banknotes. Served on a committee appointed to investigate the need for a training course for specialty art teachers and became a board member in control of the Children’s Art Centre in Pretoria.

1947: First book on JH Pierneef published

The subject of a monograph, Pierneef – the Man and his work by JFW Grosskopf, published by JL van Schaik in Pretoria.

1948: Commissions and entering the international market

SA Railways and Harbours purchased twelve paintings of old Pretoria. The FAK sent a painting by Pierneef and a poem by Totius, written in calligraphy by Pierneef, as a gift to Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands on the occasion of her golden jubilee. Six of Pierneef’s works were included in the South African Art exhibition, that showed in the Tate Gallery, London and also travelled to The Hague in 1949.

1950: First retrospective exhibition

First retrospective exhibition of work done over 25 years, exhibited at the Pieter Wenning Gallery, Johannesburg.

1951: First Honorary doctorate awarded

Pierneef was awarded with his first honorary doctorate from the University of Natal.

1952: Celebrating his birth and home town Pretoria

Commissioned by the City Council of Pretoria to do a large scale mural for the centenary celebrations of Pretoria in 1955.

1953: Paying tribute to a great friend

Totius died on 1 July, Pierneef paid his last tribute to his friend by designing his tombstone – a simple column with a pattern of willows.

1954: Last holiday to fish and paint

Pierneef undertook his last trip outside South African borders, visiting Zanzibar and the Seychelles to relax, fish and paint.

1957: Second Honorary doctorate award

Pierneef received a second honorary doctorate from the University of Pretoria. He asked to be discharged from hospital so that he could receive the degree in person.

The last days

Pierneef made his last trip to Pontdrif on the Limpopo River in July with the Steynbergs. He passed away at his Pretoria home on 4 October, at the age of 71, and was laid to rest in the family grave in the Old Cemetery, Pretoria (Heroes’ Acre).

On Sunday, 13 August 2017, we celebrate the birthday of Jacob Hendrik Pierneef. Join us in honouring his contribution towards the South African art landscape. Enjoy a glass of La Motte MCC when you visit the Tribute to JH Pierneef exhibition on the date and enjoy Chef Michelle Theron’s interpretation of his fine touch in the starter course of Pierneef à La Motte Restaurant’s Sunday Family Lunch.


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