JH Pierneef : ARTISTS : Die Kunskamer

JH Pierneef


The Magaliesberg



1886 – 1957

His father was a carpenter and master ship builder from the Netherlands, he married Neeske Buser in 1885 in Pretoria. He worked as a master builder and contractor.


J.H. Pierneef was born.


After completing his primary schooling he attended Staatsmodelschool. This is where he met Gordon Leith and Fanie Eloff. These 3 would become lifelong friends.


The family was deported due to the 2nd Anglo-Boer war and apparently Gerrit Pierneef sympathised with the Boers. They returned to Netherlands.  A consideration was the good Doctors who could treat Hendrik’s condition – due to rheumatic fever his right leg was shorter than his left. In Hilversum Hendrik took lessons in architectural drawing with a retired architect and did part time work in a paintshop.


The family moved to Rotterdam. Treatment to Hendrik’s leg was successful and when he was 18 he could walk normally. On the advice of his godfather Anton van Wouw, Hendrik enrolled at an art school – Adademia Erasmiana.


The Pierneef family returned to Pretoria, SA. Hendrik became involved with well-known artists with encouragement from Anton van Wouw. Frans Oerder gave him painting lessons and taught him the basics of oil painting.


Hendrik now 21 started to earn a living; he worked in a grocery store, a tobacconist and the state library. He continued painting.


Hendrik’s work was exhibited for the 1st time.


23 year old Pierneef married 35 year old Agatha Delen without much family support. In the same year he met Emil Schweickerdt, a German emigrant. He provided all Hendrik’s art requirements. 


Guild of South African Artists exhibited in Johannesburg, 2 etchings submitted were both sold. “The Individualists” was the name given to a group of Pretoria artists who exhibited in 1911 and 1912. As a result of successful exhibitions a representative of De Volkstem paid a visit to Pierneef’s studio.


Pierneef applied for a bursary to study for a few years in Europe but was unsuccessful. Aged 27 he held a one-man exhibition with favourable reviews.


A 2nd one-man exhibition was held. A large number of new works: paintings, etchings, woodcuts and drawings. His exhibition evoked favourable criticism even as far afield as the Netherlands. After his two successful one-man exhibitions Pierneef gave his first lecture at the Invitation of the Afrikaanse Debat en Kultuur Vereniging in Potchefstrom. He mentioned that he was convinced that the South African had a unique aesthetic sense. He was interested in Bushman art and had studied it in detail.

As well as being a library assistant – Pierneef designed dustcovers and did illustrations for magazines such as “Die Boerevrou”, Pierneef and Fanie Eloff designed the décor for a production of C.J. Langenhoven’s play “Die Hoop van Suid-Afrika”. Pierneef became a member of the Afrikaner Broederbond, a link that was to last until 1946.


Pierneef and Fanie Eloff held a joint exhibition in Pretoria Museum. In December he accepted the post of art lecturer at the Heidelberg Normal College and resigned from the State Library.


He received a commission from Lady Buxton to complete 20 studies including a number of Cape scenes. In July Pierneef went to the Cape.

Pierneef was not satisfied with the way in which the Transvaal Education Department presented the subject of art – it being based on the syllabus used in England. He decided to resign and devote his entire time to his art.

His wife Agatha was suffering from mental disorder and her sight was failing.


Pierneef gave a lecture on art in Heidelberg followed by an exhibition including a variety of oil paintings, watercolours, pastels, etchings and linocuts.

After this major exhibition Pierneef spent months camping out and painting in the Rustenburg Bushveld.

Another important exhibition was held in Bloemfontein. Many of the works were watercolours of the dry grassveld and bushveld in Winter.


A huge exhibition was held in Pretoria.    


Pierneef exhibited in Stellenbosch and lectured. A later exhibition was held in Ashbey Hall in Long Street, Cape Town. He was now 35 years old and was now reaping the well-earned fruits of his labours.


Pierneef went to SWA (now Namibia). It is claimed that some of his best works were done at this time. He worked hard and held exhibitions in Windhoek.


Returned to Pretoria.


Pierneef left his wife, never to return.

He accepted a commission to paint pictures of Hartbeespoort Dam and the surrounding area. He met Mariane (May) Francis Schoep from Netherlands. She and a friend accompanied him to SWA.

His wife Agatha sued Pierneef for desertion and they were divorced. Pierneef married May Schoep 6 months after they first met.


Pierneef’s first major exhibition was opened in Johannesburg. Later that year largely due to initiative from his friends the Pierneef’s went to Europe. Pierneef used his time to the full. He sold some linocuts to the V & Albert Museum (in 1931 the museum bought a 2nd collection of 12 linocuts). It was the period of Art Nouveau in Europe. Pierneef held his 1st exhibition in Amsterdam. This successful exhibition contributed to his renown and status in South Africa.


Returned to South Africa via the East Coast and Lourenço Marques.
He was appointed vice-president of SA Institute of Art, Durban and Chairman of the Transvaal Branch.
A large exhibition of his work was held.  “Rock of Gibraltar” attracted much attention.
Clearly the European art trends had affected Pierneef’s work. He received adverse criticism on his “new” work.


An exhibition of 45 works was held in Johannesburg. It was not a great success. His work did not appeal to the public.
His daughter Marika (Miki) was born.
A later exhibition that year was a great success.


A major exhibition was held in Pretoria, it was a financial disaster.  Pierneef exhibited a number of works with a modern approach.


Pierneef was awarded the commission to produce 28 paintings / panels for the Johannesburg railway station. For the next 3 years Pierneef’s main task was to be the completion of this commission.


Pierneef had been given his 2nd national commission: to paint murals for S.A. House in London.
An exhibition of his works was held in Rotterdam in the Netherlands.


He was awarded the Medal of Honour for Fine Art.            


Work of his was sent to London for the “Empire Coronation Exhibition”.


Pierneef was commissioned to complete 2 paintings to be donated to the Union Castle Line for the dining room for their liner – “the Pretoria Castle”.
He painted one large painting instead which measured 2m x 1m. Its title was “Uniegebou Pretoria”.

He participated in the 2nd exhibition of the New Group whose Chairman was Gregoire Boonzaier.


Pierneef bought a piece of land in Pretoria – “Elangeni”. This became a happy home where he also held exhibitions in a large studio behind the house.

He was commissioned to paint 2 panels for the new Magistrate’s Court – “Johannesburg1886 and 1940”.


This was a very demanding period in his life.
Numerous exhibitions were held including one at his studio which included 53 oils and 13 watercolours. It was a great success.


A joint Eloff / Pierneef exhibition was held.


An exhibition of 39 paintings and 11 sketches was held, it was a great success.


An overseas exhibition of SA paintings including 6 paintings; 4 oils and 2 watercolours of Pierneef’s was held at the Tate Gallery in London. After that it was transferred to The Hague in Netherlands. This aroused international interest.


A retrospective exhibition of Pierneef’s work over 25 years was held in Pieter Wenning Gallery in Johannesburg.


A major Pierneef exhibition opened in Pretoria.

2 honorary doctorates were awarded to him:
1951          University of Natal
1957          University of Pretoria

Pierneef spent time on friend’s farm in Henley-on-klip.
He suffered one heart attach after another.

A lot of entertaining was done at Elangeni, including envoys from different countries. Pierneef found this tiring and did not leave him enough time to paint.


A retrospective exhibition of his work was held at Potchefstroom University.


Pierneef went to the Seychelles.


A retrospective exhibition was held by the SA Association of Arts.


Soon after his 71st birthday Pierneef died.