Pierneef Background

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  • Short Biography
  • Influences
  • Aim and Characteristics of Art
Short Biography

Jacobus Hendrik Pierneef (1886-1957)

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 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.

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.


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.

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