Prominent South African artist (1886 - 1957) whose modernist and geometric style revolutionized South African art in the early 20th century.

Pierneef is often named as South Africa's greatest painter and his work is widely praised for its combination of raw genius and dedication to technique.


Born Jacobus Hendrik Pierneef in Pretoria, South Africa, the artist spent his formative years in the heartland of South Africa where he was schooled and started studying art. With the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War in 1900 his family fled to the Netherlands where Pierneef came into contact with the work of the great Dutch masters whose profound effect upon his emphasis on the application of a consistent technique can be seen throughout his oevre. It remains one of Pierneef's great characteristics that his work is instantly recognisable from its finely developed style.

Upon returning to Pretoria in 1902 he became friends with other established South African artists, notably the sculptor Anton van Wouw. Along with van Wouw and Hugo Naude, Pierneef took part in his first exhibition in 1902 where his work was well received. This was followed by another successful exhibition in 1911 and culminated in his first solo exhibition in 1913.

In 1919 Pierneef started teaching at the Pretoria College of Education but he immediately came into conflict with the prescribed curriculum of the Department of Education which placed much emphasis on European and English styles. This was unacceptable to Pierneef whose goal it was to establish a new esthetic for South African art.

By this time his style had become quite well defined and articulated as an own-formed, unique South African style that sought to capture the monumental scale of the South African landscape. It is then also no surprise to find that Pierneef focussed almost exclusively on landscapes with the notable exception of his Bushman studies.

In 1925 he visited Europe with the purpose to promote his work and to learn more about the art movements of the time. His work was received with great enthusiasm in the Netherlands and from there Pierneef brought back a dynamic new style influenced by the geometrical work of the cubists.

His new style of painting sought to identify the geometry of landscapes and to reduce natural elements to sets of geometric patterns. This new style was exhibited for the first time in Pretoria in 1928 where it drew much criticism from other, 'traditional' artists, especially from his friend Anton van Wouw. This rejection forced him to tone down his geometric style, but elements of this remains in his later work.

Pierneef continued to exhibit succesfully until his death in 1957.

Brief aside:

For me, personally, Pierneef's work underpins the modernist movement in South African art and literature which became evident in the 1930's and which lead to the rise of the so-called 'Dertigers' group of Afrikaans poets. His uncompromising style and insistence upon viewing traditional (and folk) art as being of high intelectual value fostered an environment in which other South African artists could also begin to view their work as more than mere representations but as manifestations of the undeniably metaphysical undercurrents in the South African landscape.

Some examples of his work:

  • transvaal landscape -
  • landscape with trees -
  • composition in blue -