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Pierneef ‘s European Break

J.H Pierneef was a well-known South African artist by the time the 1920s rolled around. As a young artist he spend time in the Netherlands after which he returned to his homeland. Post-Boer War he held a number of exhibitions which thrust him into the spotlight of the local art scene.

JH Pierneef Painting After a failed at a first attempts as an art lecturer he decided to pursue a full-time career as an artist. The time that followed was not what one would expect, in fact this was a very difficult time in the artist’s life. Mrs Pierneef suffered from a mental disorder and became increasingly dependent on her husband for support. In reaction he worked even harder – holding country wide exhibitions, touring South Africa and offering the odd lecture..

He held exhibitions in Pretoria, Cape Town Stellenbosch during the early 1920s, at times having about 300 works on display. His first two years as a professional artist was very successful. Jacobus Pierneef was now receiving deserved recognition for his work and finally felt like he was developing a truly South African brand of art.

Pierneef made a second trip to Europe midway through the 1920s, one which some critics say defined his art career. The first part characterised by his individual style and the second known as a time in which he reached maturity and saw the culmination of a multitude of influences. During his second “European break” he promoted his work and dedicated much of his time to studying the latest art movements. Interestingly his exhibition of bushmen painting drew much interest from the Dutch audience.

Towards the end of the 1920s he was again a very busy man; his career was flourishing, he held another large exhibition in Pretoria and he became a father.


Pierneef: The rise of a Genius

Jacobus Hendrik Pierneef, an esteemed South African artist was the son of a Dutch immigrant, who was a close friend of former president Paul Kruger.  He took his first steps as an artist at the Staats Model School in Pretoria. It was here where one of young Henk’s teachers inspired his love for nature and rock formations.

The outbreak of the Anglo-Boer war forced the Pierneef family back to their homeland as an alternative to imprisonment. The family settled in Hilversum where Henk and his sister could receive needed medical treatment. The former started working at a paint factory in his spare time, a good place to learn the intricacies of mixing paint. Over time he involved himself in various other activities such as night classes where he learnt about architectural drawing and later on at the Rotterdam Art Academy. These experiences accumulated into Pierneef’s growing knowledge of the old Dutch masters.

Pierneef Art

J.H Pierneef returned to Pretoria as a knowledgable young adult, ready to embark on a career in art. He would paint in his studio during the day and work at the state library during the night. This routine continued for almost 10 years. His first public auction was a great success. Collaborating with van Wouw and Naude and attracting interest from various well-known personalities of the time. He found much encouragement from the positive feedback he received from the public. As is often the case, a young man like Pierneef is subtly in search for a soulmate. At the start of 1910 he married Agatha Delen, despite opposition from both families. Pierneef was a young 23 year-old and his new wife a more advanced 35.

Pierneef’s career was now starting to take shape. He subsequently took part in a group exhibition and had two etchings sold. His first solo exhibition in 1913 was a milestone event that announced Pierneef as a master. Some critics labelling him a genius, a source of much inspiration and discipline.

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Stanley Pinker, The Artist and Teacher

He was liked by both his peers and students. Remembered  as a magnificent man. Stanley Pinker, a leading South African painter, left behind more than just his art. A telling contribution to art and the cultural sphere in general counts him with some of the greats, from Cezanne to Matisse.

(Photo Credit:
(Photo Credit:

‘The Wheel of Life’ painting dating back to 1974 is seen as one of his most noteworthy paintings, fetching R 2.4 million. He used the artistic elements to create a commentary about the political and social climate of the South Africa he lived in. He uses various symbols to depict the state of affairs in apartheid South Africa, something artists of the time seemed to gravitate towards for inspiration. He uses marionettes, a red devil on a bicycle and a red locust,  Strelitzias and flags to capture the   state of affairs in South Africa. This painting is one of Stanley Pinker’s most direct references to political folly, providing the public with much to ponder on. (source credit and

Stanley Pinker Garden of Eden

In Pinker’s rendition of  ‘The Garden of Eden’ one sees the mastery of cubism at work. It is a scene of Adam and Eve, face to face, in the presence of a floral audience. One can be forgiven for getting caught up in the idyllic scene; before noticing the dramatic irony of the situation. The imminent theme of loss is clearly visible as is a contrasting ambience of dark and light, innocence and knowledge. (source credit:

Stanley Pinker’s work speaks of a thorough understanding of European modernism while being rooted in a South African milieu. His return to South Africa after a decade long stay in Europe brought him face to face with the complexities of South African society, breaking away from place specific work to being more content focussed.

That was Stanley Faraday Pinker. A remarkable man known for being a great artist and teacher, accentuating the struggles of society with a reflective tone and touch of humour.



Stanley Pinker’s Influence

South African artists of the 50’s, 60, and 70’s had a tendency of heading for the famed European cities in search of artistic enlightenment. Stanley Pinker followed this trend, trading the African sun for a European chapter. His travels took him to the streets of London and France, but not before being educated at Cape Town’s own Continental School of Art.


The late 1940’s saw Pinker, who had moved from Namibia to the republic some 10 years earlier, enrol at the Continental School of Art under the guidance of Maurice van Essche. His next stop was the Hammersmith School of Art in London. He returned to South Africa for a stint at the Cape Town Art Centre during the 1960’s. His next stop was the Michaelis School of Fine Art, where he became a much loved teacher and mentor. Still remembered by an array of accomplished artists; Marlene Dumas being one of them. 

His art is remembered for being a breath of fresh air, many admirers remembering his ability to incorporate some odd objects to his art. Some remembering the buttons he stitched to the back of the coats of musicians in one of his earlier paintings. Stanley Pinker’s art accumulated substantial value, Wheel of Life fetching R 2,4 million on an auction by Strauss & Co.

This artist not only had a following, he created a legacy. He held several exhibitions at SAAA, Western Cape (now AVA). He was awarded the Rembrandt Gold Medal at the Cape Town Triennial. His lifetime devotion to art also earned him the Molteno Medal. His work is housed in many of the major public galleries in South Africa as well as countless private collections, locally and abroad.

The Stanley Pinker legacy goes far beyond the canvas, this great teacher and mentor helped other along the way of artistry.


The Wandering Mind of Walter Battiss

The wandering mind of Walter Battiss made him one of the unique characters of his time. He had an almost unusual interest in African art, ranging from Ndebele artwork to Bushman rock art. Some commentators attribute his eccentric style to the influence of his friendship with Picasso in the 1950s.

(Photo Credit: and
(Photo Credit: and

He was a founding member of The New Group, a collective of young South African artists who set out to explore fresh ideas in art and explore new frontiers. A large number of this group had been studying in Europe at the time and their arrival in their motherland left them disillusioned with the conservative culture surrounding South African art. This group enjoyed a tenure of about 10 – 12 years after which it was disbanded as a result of being institutionalised. It was in this period of time that he released his first book, ‘The Amazing Bushman’.

The Walter Battiss Company notes that it was 1955 when the started experimenting with calligraphic art and evidence of human and animal abstractions became evident. It was about this time when Ndebele art became a prominent feature of his artworks.

(photo credit: and
(photo credit: and

The early 60s saw his curiousity soar to new heights as his interest in Islamic culture took him on several trips to Central Africa and the Middle-East. One might surmise that this was the period of time that he wanted to explore the rest of the world. Towards the end of that decade he made numerous trips to the north; including Greece in 1968 and Seychelles in 1972. Walter Battiss traveled to many other parts of the world as well, including Hawaii, Zanzibar, Fiji and Madagascar.

Walter Battiss was an influencer and innovator. He had a special interest in man and his environment. His impact on many young artists and the South African art scene remains as valuable as the art he left behind.

The Rise of Robert Hodgins

When you think of Robert Hodgins, you are reminded of the artist, the expressionist, a man who earned the kind words his friends remember him with. Spending much of his life as a “working” man, he left his position as a Senior Lecturer at Wits to become a full-time artist.

Hodgins had done a number of exhibits from as early as the 50’s, even though his work was only recognised in 1981. Living in apartheid-South Africa, he used his art to make anti-apartheid statements. This was a trend followed by many artists. He particularly enjoyed satirizing figures of power. These expressions had a major impact on the social climate of South Africa. In response to this Standard Bank National Arts Festival hosted a major retrospective exhibition in 1986.

Robert Hodgins had quite a remarkable rise from his days of teaching painting and drawing in Pretoria to the much loved South African artist he became towards the end of his life. His biography reads like a novel, an inquiring artist who made his way through life and became an accomplished artists towards the end.

Some of his earliest works include “Hidden Man” which he produced during his time at Pretoria Technical College; he actually made his own frame for that painting. “Man with a Cup” made its way to the Gertrude Possel Gallery, Hodgins’ work at the time was characterised by dark lines and sombre line work.

Art and politics are an unlikely combination, but in the 80s Hodgins used art to cut to the bone of inequality. (photo credit:,,
Art and politics are an unlikely combination, but in the 80s Hodgins used art to cut to the bone of inequality.
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The early 1980s saw the arrival of the iconic Ubu character in Hodgins work. Ubu Roi was a character from one of  Alfred Jarry’s stories. Ubu became a central figure of Robert Hodgins’ art, especially during the 80s, when so much of his work was focussed on depicting the social wrongs of the day. In “Ubu and Mr America”, a dreamy-eyed Ubu, painted in a series of lines, swirls and flat planes of colour gazes lustfully at muscular bodybuilder. In contrast, the Mr America figure is painted with warm colours and textured with fine indentations, like the pores of human skin.

This was the real Robert Hodgins, the artist who was not content with the status quo, but chose to use his expression as a voice against injustice. He started building a loyal following, not only because he made a statement, but because he spoke their language.

Pierneef: Of Exile, Drawing & a Paint Factory

 Absolut Art Gallery - J H Pierneef - Biography
Pierneef wielded his brush with a bold tenderness, conjuring colours and carving out shapes across the canvas with a soulful dexterity that has set him apart as an artist of exceptional worth – in every sense of the word. (In terms of South African investment art, a Pierneef piece is more than just a pretty picture – and worth every penny! His work is prized all around the world, selling for up to R12 million.)
‘Henk’ Pierneef enjoyed and excelled in art class at school – most particularly in drawing, which continued to fascinate him throughout his teenage years – which were spent in Holland in a temporary sort of exile away from the turbulance of the Second Anglo-Boer War.
L-R: Transvaal Boer leader, Paul Kruger | Boer defending from a trench | Burghers | concentration camp to detain Boer families and POWs
L-R: Transvaal Boer leader, Paul Kruger | Boer defending from a trench | Burghers | concentration camp to detain Boer families and POWs
L-R: British leader, Horatio Kitchener | Wounded British soldiers after Battle of Modderfontein | POW camp | British leader: Baden-Powell
L-R: British leader, Horatio Kitchener | Wounded British soldiers after Battle of Modderfontein | POW camp | British leader: Baden-Powell

A church in Hilversum, Holland (by P J Cuypers - circa 1900)
A church in Hilversum, Holland (by P J Cuypers – circa 1900)

Initially, the family lived in Hilversum where the 14 year old Pierneef pursued his love of drawing with a remarkably industrious persistence, attending evening classes in architectural drawing at an age when his peers preferred girls, dance halls and football.

His daylight hours were spent working in a paint-making factory, where his understanding, knowledge and skills in colour-mixing and paint techniques were the perfect complement to his sketching skills and natural talent for the foundational art discipline of drawing.
In 1902, the family relocated to Rotterdam – where the sixteen year old snapped up the opportunity to study art in a more formal, academic setting at the Rotterdam Art Academy. Holland, and Europe as a whole, overflowed with an incredible passion for all things cultural — fine art, classical music and literature was accessible in abundance. Our young burgeoning artist’s imagination and art education was nourished by his immersion in the fine art of Europe, with particular emphasis on the Old Dutch Masters like Rembrandt, Hals and Vermeer. Rome, too, was another art adventure for Pierneef which we can only imagine must have been exquisitely enriching for him, surrounded by the opulence and excellence of Michaelangelo, da Vinci and Giotto.

Eventually, at the age of 18, Pierneef left with his family, leaving their Rotterdam home behind them to return once again to South Africa: a brand new canvas for Pierneef to paint.

(Be sure to visit again soon to read Part II of our Pierneef series!)

Galleries: The Fine Art of Business

{ STAYING SOCIAL } Facebooking, Blogging & Educating!

As a business based on the marriage between tradition and creative, contemporary innovation, we make sure we continually evolve alongside current cultural and technological trends – which is why we are hatching a new look and approach to showcasing South African art online!


Julian Motau - South African Artist - Township Art - Apartheid Era - Absolut Art Gallery


One of our responsibilities as a gallery is to continue the celebration and honouring of our South African art heritage, and also providing rich educational resources online – for art lovers, art collectors and young art students alike. This is why we keep our Facebook page fresh with current art news and interesting posts about both old masters and contemporary artists. This is also why we’ve now added a Blog section to our website for you!
We are also updating all of our artist CVs to include videos, podcasts, interviews and more! Have a look at Julian Motau‘s CV and tell us what you think on our Facebook page. We invite you to share any facts, photos or intriguing snippets of information with us on Facebook which we can then add to the artists’ CVs!



We leave you with a moving tribute to Julian Motau after he was assassinated, shot from the back: ‘En Skielik is dit Aand‘ by South African composer Hendrik Hofmeyr, inspired by poet, Wilhelm Knobel:

Irma the Rebel, Irma the Red

Letters from the Artist 

Absolut Art Gallery - Irma Stern's Letters

Irma Stern is perhaps the absolute epitome of South Africa’s presence within the European movement of avant garde. (Read her biography here.)

As promised, we’re going to be looking at Irma Stern’s letters and how they revealed a dislocated and magnificent turbulence of the heart — reminiscent of Van Gogh’s experience of life, love, art and identity.
Stern’s identity can perhaps painted as a dichotomy of black and white, torn as she was between her deep identification with the Africa of her birth, and her European heritage as a German Jew.

This prolific letter writer was (in a sweet serendipity) born in a post office, deep in the Northern Province of South Africa. When she was three years old, her father was incarcerated by the British for his pro-Boer perspectives, and Stern’s mother whisked her two young children away to Germany until his release. With the explosion of World War 1, the family returned to Germany yet again, where Stern confessed to having felt trapped, cloistered, claustrophic and dislocated.

“… this divided upbringing leaves one with the feeling of belonging to nowhere.” 

Upon returning more definitively to South Africa as her true home, Stern’s avant garde Expressionism caused an uproar across the country, with a police investigation triggered by charges of alleged immorality surrounding her 1922 exhibition. Nothing, however, could break this strong woman’s fierce and passionate independence, and she diligently transgressed the conservative cliches of what it meant to be an artist and woman in South Africa. She travelled prolifically. She worked like a man. And in her own words:

“My appearance is that of a well-dressed lady, but inwardly I run more and more wild.”  

With a dogged ferocity that was then considered unfeminine, she closed herself up in her studio – coffee and cigarettes her only sustenance – and worked for days. She ran her business solely on her own: framing her paintings, packaging them and arranging sales. However, beneath this almost rebellious strength, was a highly sensitive, compassionate and humble heart which carried within itself raw wounds of pain, tragedy and grief. Excerpts from letters to her friends paint an emotionally evocative picture of her.
To her friend Max Pechstein, she wrote:

“You have made me so contented, so eager to work and happy, with a few words you cast down all the dark hours of despair and inner conflict.”  And after her first solo show: “I really can’t tell you over the telephone how grateful I am to you for all the good things you have done for me! I am truly always aware of it – how wonderfully you have helped me along – how you showed me what is true and good in my work and what is empty phrasing, and then how you have helped me with other people, have smoothed the path for me. For I know what human impediments you have cleared from my way through your interest in my work!”

(In a tender gesture of grateful reciprocation, Stern sent Pechstein food parcels during the war.)

After the war, she vowed never to return to Germany, writing to her childhood friend, Trude Bosse, 

“I have buried the past … It hurts more than one thinks. A country, its well-disposed people – all of this into a mass grave. Everything that comes from Germany is like a bygone century to me, like the echo of a sunken world.”

Art historians and theorists have judged, some harshly  and some more compassionately, Stern’s character, identity and heart – like Neville Dubow and Marion Arnold who said Stern was “quite highly talented, though sexually frustrated, emotionally drained, humanely ambivalent, politically disinterested and suspect.” And that her work was “the vent of a physically unattractive, unloved and unhappy woman” Perhaps more realistically, German curator Irene Below acknowleged Stern as “a sensitive, acutely observant, qualified artist who, from childhood, came to grips with her life and her experiences in two extremely different worlds.” 

Her boldly vibrant and exuberant colours antithetically mirror her dirtier, mournful colours  — like a self-portrait. Unlike her South African and European contemporaries who painted portraits of themselves in abundance (like Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gaugin and Frida Kahlo) Stern declined. Why? 

We’ll be talking about this enigma of a woman on our Facebook page – and would love to hear what you think the answer might be. Click here to join the conversation!



  • Google “Beyond Black and White: Rethinking Irma Stern by Claudia B Braude” for deeper insights into Irma Stern’s life and work.
  • And click here to read more about her by acclaimed UCT art academic, Clive Kellner.