Details & Cataloguing

Modern and Contemporary African Art


Jacob Hendrik Pierneef
signed (lower left)
oil on canvas
41 by 56cm.,16¼ by 22¼in.
Painted circa 1930
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J.H. Pierneef is widely-revered for not only depicting, but defining, the South African landscape, and Louis Trichardt is both an excellent example of the master’s work, and a precursor to one of the Johannesburg Station Panels, widely considered to be the artist’s masterpieces.  

Born in Pretoria to a Hollander and Trekker family, Pierneef would come to be recognised as the pre-eminent Afrikaner artist, his rise in popularity mirroring the rise in Afrikaner nationalism in the wake of independence from the British. The years following the end of the Boer War (during which time the Pierneef family relocated to the Netherlands) and the Union of South Africa in 1910 saw a period of nation-building and the creation of a national identity, in which the artist was actively involved. He was a member of the Afrikaner Broederband, a secret organisation founded in 1918 by an emerging elite of Afrikaner nationalists, like-minded intellectuals and artists, who actively promoted the idea of a unique Afrikaner culture in order to influence political power. In 1929 he was a founding member of the Afrikaner cultural association Federasie van Afrikaanse Kultuurvereniginge (FAK), and in 1932 he wrote ‘it would be a disaster if we allowed ourselves to be dictated to by such outsiders as to what African art is. And since Art is the spontaneous and highest expression of our people, who are of Dutch origin, it is essential that we as Afrikaners should take care that no foreign influences creep into our heart’ (as quoted in Nessa Liebhammer (ed.), Art from the African Continent, Johannesburg, 2005, p.26).

The South African landscape was central to the ideology of the emerging nation. During this period the land was claimed both physically and artistically as ‘home’, and in turn both the land and the landscape helped to define the nation. The national mythology centred on the Voortrekkers and their migration from the Cape to the Transvaal, and Pierneef depicted the South African landscape in a way that expressed its unique character as well as the Afrikaners’ connection to the land. Many of these national ideas were synonymous with religious righteousness, and Pierneef’s Edenic landscapes can be interpreted as depictions of God’s Promised Land. This dream of an idealised perfect landscape was shared by many South Africans, who came to see their country through Pierneef’s eyes.

By 1929, Pierneef’s fame and nationalist sensibilities made him the natural choice for a commission from the South African Railways and Harbours Administration to decorate the concourse of the newly constructed Park Station in Johannesburg with a series of twenty eight landscape paintings, produced between 1929 and 1932. The SAR&H being a government body, the commission served political as well as economic purposes. On the surface an advertisement for South African tourism, the panels also served as nationalist propaganda, promoting the burgeoning city of Johannesburg’s wealth and as well as the young nation’s position in the continent and the world. Their installation at the central train station ensured the works were seen and appreciated by a wide audience of commuters as well as national and international travellers.

The present lot, Louis Trichardt, appears to be a preparatory study for the station panel of the same name. Pierneef usually made preliminary sketches en plein air before completing his formalised paintings in the studio, and considering the scale of the commission and the requirement for stylistic cohesion, the panels must have required exceptional preparatory work and pre-planning. It is thought Louis Trichardt was one of the first panels completed, and Pierneef travelled to Louis Trichardt soon after the commission was announced in 1929. The present lot was likely completed in the studio from the artist’s outdoor sketches as it is both naturalistic and topographically accurate.

On first glance the present lot and its namesake panel appear to be the same composition, but the restrictions of the space allocated to the panels and their architectural setting proved a challenge to the traditional landscape format. The panels had to be taller than they were wide, giving the series a vertical quality not usually seen in landscape painting, and were hung up to 5 metres above eye level. Designed to be seen from a distance, the subtleties of brushstroke and detail seen in the present lot were abandoned for strong lines, smooth surfaces and uniform colour. Sketches show the artist’s reworking of the present composition to allow the application of the principles of the Symbolist artist Willem van Konijnenburg, whom he had meet in Holland in 1925, and who used mathematical proportion, linear rhythm and simplified form to realise beauty and harmony in his painting.

The application of these theories mark Pierneef’s transition to his mature style; in the example of the Louis Trichardt panel, the point of the church spire is moved to the exact centre of the composition and the clouds describe concentric circles around that point. PIerneef’s monumental cumulus clouds and the vertical nature of the composition also add a transcendental quality to the painting that further serves to suggest the meeting of heaven and earth and the presence of the divine in nature and, more specifically, in the Transvaal.

Louis Trichardt was chosen for the series for its historical significance as a Voortrekker settlement. A group of Trekkers under the leadership of Louis Tregardt, after whom the town is named, stayed in the area from May 1836 until August 1837, before moving on to Lourenço Marques. The town of Trichardtsdorp, later Louis Trichardt, was founded in February 1899. Being the most northerly scene in the series, it also represents the frontier between South Africa and the rest of the continent. The Dutch Reformed Church, which features so prominently in Pierneef’s paintings, was designed by Gerard Moerdijk in 1926; Moerdijk also worked on the design for the Johannesburg Park Station and would later design the Voortrekker Monument. Further public commissions for Pierneef also followed, including another series of panels at South Africa House, London, and a painting commemorating the Great Trek and the inauguration of the Voortrekker Monument.

Modern and Contemporary African Art