Short Biography

Jacobus Hendrik (Henk) Pierneef was born in Pretoria. His father, Gerrit was an immigrant Hollander, who was a master-builder, carpenter and building contractor. (In the period before the first World War the concepts architect, masterbuilder and building contracter were not clearly defined as separate as it is today.). His father was also a close friend of of president Paul Kruger. Henk went to the Staats Model School in Pretoria where he took his first art classes,. He was very good in drawing and one of his teachers inspired his love for nature and his interest in rock formations.

During the Anglo-Boer War they left for the Netherlands or face imprisonment. In Holland both Pierneef and his sister could also get the medical care they needed. They stayed at first in Hilversum where Pierneef worked in a paint factory after school and learnt techniques of mixing paints and also went to night-classes in Architectural drawing. Later they went to Rotterdam, there he studied for a year at the Rotterdam Art Academy. This experience brought Pierneef into contact with the works of the old Dutch masters.

They returned to South Africa when Pierneef was 18 and both him and his sister had no longer needed the medical care for their respective conditions.  Pierneef wanted to study architecture, but his father experienced financial difficulties and young Henk Pierneef was sent to work. He continued to study artistic techniques, encouraged by his godfather, Anton van Wouw. The Irish artist George Smithard encouraged him to develop his own South African style of painting and taught him the graphic mediums like etching and linocuts.

In the aftermath of the Boer War there was a lot of bitterness among Afrikaners towards the British. As Milner also wanted to Anglicize Afrikaners on top of the suffering endured during the Anglo Boer War a strong sense of nationalism was born among the Afrikaners. Within this atmosphere Pierneef took up the cause of Afrikaner art and culture and illustrated many books of Afrikaans Authors as part of the second language movement to get Afrikaans excepted as an official language. He also lectured on developing a South African identity in arts and crafts. He painted and made linoprints in his spare time while earning his living at other occupations, and it was only 1924 that he became a professional artist.

Pierneef’s art can be divided into two periods; work done before his second visit to Europe and the work done after 1926 when he returned to South Africa. The first phase shows a search for an individual style and the second phase, the period between 1925-1935, was the time in which he attained full maturity and when all the influences flowed together to the full synthesis of his personal impression of the South African landscape and his unique style and vision.

The Dutch artist van Konijnenburg’s philosophy had a particular influence on him. He met with the artist during his second visit to the Netherlands and corresponded with him for many years.

Pierneef’s second visit to the Netherlands also made him aware of mass-produced consumer goods which were also available in South Africa and how it was affecting the the taste of Afrikaners. He launched a campaign against it in articles and speeches and encouraged traditional Afrikaner arts and crafts.

In 1928 Pierneef shocked the traditionalists by including some stylized modern art in the Cubist style and which some called it ” Futuristic ” works in an exhibition. These were not accepted as well as his traditional works that he became known for, and after bad reviews, and a turning of art trends against Abstract art in Europe after the War, he reverted back to his old style.

Pierneef accepted a commission in 1929 to paint 32 panels for the interior of the then-new Johannesburg Railway Station, considered to be some of his best work. In 1933, he was commissioned to do seven murals for South Africa House, the South African embassy on Trafalgar Square, London. Pierneef completed this work in 1934. He died in 1957, Pretoria.


In the his earlier years Pierneef was influenced by the Impressionist style and Post-Impressionists’ colour palette and treatment of light . Through this influence he observed the light effects found only in Africa, which is very different to the European light. Also influenced by the European interest in primitive art, he was the first South African artist to study Bushmen rock art and the traditional tribal art of South Africa in his search to find a uniquely South African style. The rock paintings of the Bushmen are a stylized art form in which the colours are adjacent to one another, on one plane, and there is no shading or modulation of colour. In certain types of light, the South African landscape takes on a flat, 2 dimensional quality. In the bright  midday sun objects lose their volume and the strong light reduce them to two dimensions, making them into flat planes and texture seems to disappear. This suited his geometric style of painting.

He believed that the triangle was the basis of African art and often used the triangle both in his compositions and for decorative borders in his graphic art works.In is graphic work he developed his own geometrical Art Nouveau Style.

Returning to Europe in 1925, he was exposed to many stimuli but it was Dutch artist and theorist, Willem van Konijnenburg’s (1868-1943) ideas who had the most influence on Pierneef’s art. It was the integration of Van Konijnenburg’ philosophy regarding the spiritual effects of mathematical proportion, linear rhythm and simplified form and the symbolic use of the the horizontal and vertical line in painting, that became the foundation for Pierneef’s mature style.

According to the particular philosophy of van Konijnenburg, the principles of geometry was used to emphasise the linear elements in painting to achieve harmony, balance and unity. For both van Konijnenburg and Pierneef rhythm of colour, of line, and of tone created harmony and a feeling of tranquility. Both shared a love of Architecture.

Konijnenburg was also regarded to be a Symbolist. In reaction to the Impressionists the Symbolists sought internal light.instead of the natural light of the Impressionists, The Symbolists wanted to create a landscape of the soul rather than the natural landscape of the Impressionists. The symbolist movement did not see nature as appealing decor, but as a reflection of the emotional life.Trees were for example personified and perceived as possessing souls.These elements can also be found in Pierneef’s mature work.

In 1928 he did a range of paintings that showed the influence of the abstracted geometric shapes and planes of the Cubists. He used it to develop a unique South African Cubistic landscape style with the Symbolist philosophy as basis.

Aim and Characteristics of Art

“Jy moet saamry op die wa met jou volk,” (You must ride the wagon with your people.) Pierneef.

Pierneef’s philosophy of life was formed by his desire to promote everything that was truly South African; art, architecture, music, together with his quest for harmony and order. He was a great painter of landscapes, trees, and flowers, but rarely did still life paintings or human figures. Most of his landscapes were of the South African Highveld, uninhabited and with dramatic light and colour.

For Pierneef art and architecture were inseparable because for him both depended on the structuring of space and proportion. One can say that he interpreted the landscape through with a structural bias. He often treated mountains and rock formations as structures and even his trees were sometimes used like collonades through which the landscape in the background is seen in perspective. The Architectural structural elements in his paintings are emphasised by his simplification of subjects that reveal their basic structure.

 An Extensive View of Farmlands, 1926

An Extensive View of Farmlands, 1926

His reduced and simplified the landscapes consisted of geometric structures, with flat planes, lines and colour that represent the harmony and order in nature.His particular style was also called monumental-decorative style as the decorative elements were dominant and presented in broad, clear and simplified lines and planes, with the strong linearity depicted in a subdued palette of pale colours, usually tone values of the same colour.

Clouds and trees were especially of interest to him and reflected the theme and the underlying symbolism of the painting. Not only did the specific trees have specific symbolic meanings to Pierneef but as they were also characteristic of particular geographic areas, he used them to describe the character and atmosphere of the particular area. He also used the trees as elements to structure the composition.

Pierneef developed this visual language based on the character of the land and the quality of light to be found in Africa. The most characteristic elements of his work was the light and colour, and the geometric structuring of his compositions. He achieves unity of composition in his work by using Although he stylized the the elements in his paintings towards abstraction his work never became non-representational as it did with Mondrian.

Examples of His Work

Johannesburg Station Panels 1929 – 1932

Johannesburg Station Panels 1929 – 1932

Background to the Panels:

Both Stellenbosch and Rustenburg Kloof  were part of the Johannesburg Station’s 32 panels. They were placed in the old Johannesburg Station as adverts to travel the country. As is characteristic of monumental art the paintings had to form a synthesis with the architecture of the building and give expression to the idea contained in a building which in this case was a railway station from where people departed to the different landscapes of South Africa depicted in paintings. The Station Panels were executed in the formal, ordered style for which Pierneef has become best known. The technique that Pierneef used on the panels was to make numerous field sketches that were blocked off and enlarged onto the canvas. Dark outlines of forms were then drawn in, followed by flat areas of colour. A cartoonist would use exactly the same method and it is this technique that gives the paintings such a graphic feel and suited the requirements for the murals in his monumental-decorative style.

Old Johannesburg Station

As monumental mural paintings, the paintings had to flow together with the architecture and at the same time emphasise it. The panels had to be placed in arch-shaped niches and Pierneef echoed the arches of the building in the panels. The arch is reflected in the composition of the paintings; even in the lower part of the panels the arch is reflected in the light and shade effects in the foreground – symbolically drawing heaven and earth together in a cosmic circle, reflecting Pierneef’s personal philosophy.

The size of the panels was a problem to Pierneef as they had to be slightly higher than they were wide and this resulted in a vertical quality that dominated the whole. The verticality meant that Pierneef could not give full expression to the “ver verlate vlaktes” (distant desolate plains), the wavy fields and endless horizons which are so typical of South Africa, however, he was, however, still able to capture atmosphere so unique to the varied parts of the country.

He was also limited in what colours he could use in the paintings, as the colours had to be “wall colours.” The colours in his paintings match the soft tints of the marble columns in the hall. To emphasise the unity he used only a limited number of colours and repeated them in different panels. Blue, green, red and purple were used for the landscape and a mixture of whitish grey, silver and gold for the clouds. The same colours were subtly combined to create a warm or cold atmosphere or to suggest certain morning or evening moods, desert-scapes, or mistiness. In this way he mixed reddish purple with grey and blue, cold colours in themselves, into sunset moods and created warmth.

These pictures shows some of the station panel paintings with real photographs of the scene it represented.

Stellenbosch (1932)

Careful, mathematical composition is a hallmark of the panels.
His fine sense of proportion can clearly be seen in these paintings. An analysis of Stellenbosch shows that he constructed his work along square and diagonal lines. It is based on the proportions contained in the golden section,used since the Renaissance times, by many artists and architects, who have proportioned their works to approximate the golden ratio, especially in the form of the golden rectangle, in which the ratio of the longer side to the shorter is the golden ratio, believing this proportion to be aesthetically pleasing. Basically breaking down the composition down into thirds.

A Fibonacci spiral which approximates the golden spiral, created by drawing circular arcs connecting the opposite corners of squares in the Fibonacci tiling and a tiling with squares whose sides are successive Fibonacci numbers in length.

Rustenburg Kloof (1925 – 32)

This is the actual Rustenburg Kloof – you can clearly see how Pierneef Stylized the scene to make it more dramatic.

The mathematical composition of the panels is also clearly visible in this painting, as well as their circular structure. The arch of the clouds is echoed in the ochre earth forming a circle . The circle is reinforced by the use of tone, so that the eye is drawn to the centre by the pale yellow of the cliffs behind the Camel thorn tree. The darker shapes of the trees in the foreground help to form a frame for the light mountains in the background. The cliff seems immense behind the contours of the central wooded dark areas as there’s no middle ground to give a sense of its scale. Looking at the photograph it seems as if Pierneef made the cliffs proportionally much higher and more dramatic than they really are.

As is true of Pierneef’s characteristic landscapes, he also reduces his subjects to their essence (stylize), leaving out unimportant details and emphasising only the main features in this painting. The broken linear vertical and horizontal treatment of the rock face is reminiscent of Mondrian’s non-representative style of white ground, upon which was painted a grid of vertical and horizontal black lines and the three primary colours. Some writers do say that Pierneef was familiarized with Mondrian’s work during his second visit to Europe and that he was intrigued by it. In some of his preparatory for Rustenburg Kloof drawings this aspect is especially clear.

Mondrian (1913) Tableau No. 2/Composition No. VII, 1913.

The trees and the landscape are rhythmic and balanced. The long horizontal skyline, the strong vertical element and the arch of the open sky form the basic pattern of the composition, which can also be interpreted symbolically.

The composition is well balanced in both colour and line. The colours emphasise the geometrical outline and separate the different levels and planes from one another. The light purple shadows of the cliff in the background is echoed by the mountain in shadow at the right of the painting. The vertical lines of the trees and the rock formation is rhythmically repeated to gently lead the eye through the painting. The vertical and horizontal lines in the painting emphasize the geometric structure underlying the composition, as well as the geometric structure of the rock formation that forms the basis of the mountains.

His intellectual approach and structure strengthens the mood of African scenery. Pierneef often within a single image, combined different perspectives and different times of day of the same scene. For example the light in this painting is based on an early morning light, and in reality you wouldn’t see those clouds early in the day at Rustenburg Kloof. The foreground area also is depicted at the angle which will give the overall composition the most drama rather than how it actually is. This aspect is both an element of the multiple perspectives/the multiple view-point of the Cubists and Romantic landscape artists but it is synthesized into a uniquely South African style.

We take it for granted that the camera shows us what is “real”, but it only captures a moment. Pierneef gives us a highly stylised version of the world, that conveys a reality far truer to our memory and our emotional recall of the South African landscape. What he shows in a landscape is how a particular moment impresses upon our senses and emotions when we first encounter an awe inspiring scene in nature. Often when we take a picture of what we see we are disappointed because it lacks the drama we remember.

Composition in Blue (circa 1928)

Composition in Blue is one of Pierneef’s more abstracted and heavily stylized works that was rejected by the public and after which he reverted back to a more representational style. In this painting has taken his favourite Highveld landscape, trees and clouds and fragmented it into geometric forms using a limited palette of colour, reminiscent of the Cubist style, but he used the Cubist style to describe the illusion of reality and used it for a different aim.

The eye is drawn to the central source of light in the clouds and then back to the tree in the center of the composition from where your eye is guided by the other trees deeper into the background and back up the the mountains into the sky. The dark vertical shapes of the trees diminishing in size almost forms a path that rhythmically leads the eye into the painting.

It is composed according to strict mathematical principles and philosophy where the cosmos is seen as a geometrically ordered whole and the artist is seen as striving to make the rules of this higher reality visible through mathematics.
The composition is divided into the golden thirds both by the vertical and horizontal lines as well as by his use of colour. In the foreground the warm colour of the earth is divided into thirds horizontally by bands of purple-brown and ochre. The background and the middle ground forms a harmonious whole in graded blues divided into thirds by the horizontal lines of the trees emphasized by the tonal values of the blues. The strongly emphasized  horizontal lines in this painting can be seen as a visual expression of the national anthem’s Die Stem words
Uit die blou van onse hemel, (From the blue of our heaven)
Uit die diepte van ons see, (From the depths of our sea)
Oor ons ewige gebergtes, (Over our eternal mountains)
Waar die kranse antwoord gee, (Where the cliffs echoes answers)

If you took away the strong contrasting vertical lines of the trees, especially the one in the foreground, however, the painting would have lacked the drama.

To Pierneef the clouds symbolically represented “clouds of our Dear Lord,” an omnipresent creative force. In the centre of the composition is the umbrella shaped Camel thorn tree. To Pierneef the tree is not simply a natural object, it was a means of expression, thought, and a feeling.To Pierneef the tree was both a psychological projection of man and a symbol of life, forming a link between heaven and earth. In this painting the dominating tree is both a symbolic link between heaven and earth and a stylistic device that links the sky of the background to the earth in the foreground. The leadwood tree in particular was a symbol of eternity to him.and the Camelthorn symbolized the Bushveld. The Camelthorn in this painting is stylized through omission of detail and simplification of its large shape to its basic shape to fit in with the shapes in the sky.

The clear association which Pierneef creates between heaven and earth in this painting gives shape to Van Konijnenburg’s philosophy that the task of art creation as the bearer of of the idea was to realise this harmony and that geometry was the vehicle whereby it could be done – art begins where nature ends.The forms of reality had to be stylised to give expression to an idea. This can also be called Realistic symbolism or an art in which symbols are expressed realistically. Pierneef however, took the philosophy and visually synthesised it into his own, reflecting his vision of the spirit of Africa.

Key Words or Pierneef: Architecture, African Light, Structure, Stylization, Geometric structure, flat planes, Cubism, balance, clouds, trees, Symbolism, Romantic landscapes, Afrikaner Nationalism, Highveldt landscape

Pierneef, 1928

Pierneef, 1928


P.G. Nel, J.H. Pierneef, 1990, Cape Town
Absolut Art Gallery
Smart Art
Straus Art
Stephan Welz & Co
Travels with Pierneef
The years up to 1925 and Pierneef’s long awaited visit to Europe     

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