Jacobus Hendrik Pierneef was born on 13 August 1886 in Pretoria from Dutch parents. Pierneef started his high school career at the Staatsmodelschool in Pretoria and it was here that he started his art classes.
With the war of 1900 between the Boers and the English, the Pierneef family decided to move back to the Netherlands in 1901 where Hendrik continued his schooling. This experience brought Pierneef into contact with the works of the old masters and it had a lasting impression on him. He studied part time at the Rotterdamse Kunsakademie. He was a changed man when he returned to South Africa at the age of 18. Back in Pretoria the young artist crossed paths with other already established artists like Anton van Wouw, Hugo Naude, Frans Oerder, and also the Irish artist George Smithard who played an important role in the teaching of the graphic mediums like etching- and linocuts.
It was only in 1902 that Pierneef showed his works on an exhibition for the first time. It was a group exhibition with Anton van Wouw and Hugo Naude and was visited by various well known personalities. It was of great comfort to the young aspiring artist to hear the good comments from the public.
Pierneef married Agatha Delen a woman 12 years his senior against all advice from both families on 16 February 1910. Pierneef was 23 and his new bride was 35years old. He worked at the State Library at night and during the day he painted in his studio.
In 1911 Pierneef took part in a group exhibition in Johannesburg and submitted two etchings which were both sold. It was however his first solo exhibition in Pretoria in 1913 that lead the critics to describe his work as that of a Genius. This inspired him greatly to continue working even harder and more disciplined.
His second solo exhibition was held two years later and this show included a large contingent of new work as well as some graphic works. The exhibition was reviewed favorably. Pierneef researched South African Art and the influences thereon and often spoke about this subject.
During this period, he did various illustrations for a number of periodicals and books including Die Brandwag in 1917 and The Independent in 1919. In 1918 after 9 years in the State Library, Pierneef started a career as an Art Lecturer at the Heidelberg College of Education. In 1919 he also started teaching drawing at the Pretoria College of Education. He never stopped exhibiting and constantly took part in various group exhibitions.
His new career as art lecturer didn't work out as Pierneef had planned since the curriculum and the Department of Education's system was based heavily on the English system which he didn't believe in. He felt that the South African artists should have their own style and set of rules to follow. He resigned and decided to spend all his time on his painting career and became a full time artist. It was a difficult time in the life. His wife suffered from a mental disorder and also started to lose her sight. Although supportive of her husband's decisions, her increasing dependence on him, because of her medical condition made him work harder - he toured the country, lectured and exhibited extensively.
In 1920 Pierneef had a major exhibition in Pretoria with more than 300 works in various mediums. He received very favorable reviews. In 1921 he exhibited in Stellenbosch. He went back to Pretoria an started preparing for an exhibition in Cape Town. This exhibition which was held in 1921 was also a very successful event and only two years after becoming a full time artist Pierneef realised that there was finally recognition for his work and that he was setting the trend for an unique South African style.
In 1923 he visited Namibia and sketched extensively for paintings that which would later be completed in his studio. Pierneef worked diligently and only two months after his arrival in Namibia he had an exhibition of more than 30 works. It is said that some of his best works come from this period. Although everything appeared to be going well, he was still experiencing financial problems and had to do various odd jobs to earn more money.
He started working for a Mr. Johan Schoeman at the Hartebeespoortdam with an advertising project to sell the land around the dam. He stayed in the Hotel Agnes and here he met his second wife, a Dutch woman May Schoep. In 1923 he got divorced from his first wife and in 1924 Pierneef married again.
In 1925 he had an exhibition in Johannesburg and it was clear that the fifty works on show showed a new vitality and enthusiasm. In 1925 the couple went to Europe were Pierneef worked hard to promote himself but also to learn about the different art movements. In the same year he also had an exhibition in the Netherlands and it was especially the Bushmen drawings that sparked great interest. In 1926 they returned on a ship which sailed along the east cost of Africa and he sketched the ports where they docked. In 1927 after the birth of his daughter Pierneef had a very successful exhibition of 86 works in Pretoria.
In 1928 Pierneef shocked the traditionalists by including some abstract modern and as 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 from people like Anton Van Wouw, he had to revert back to his old style.
In 1929 Pierneef was commissioned to do the 28 panels for the inside of the new Johannesburg Station Building which kept him occupied for the next three years. He however continued working for exhibitions during this time and also designed various catalogues and brochures. The panels were completed in 1932 and is till on display today and seen as one of the highlights in his career. In 1933 he received his second commission to do seven murals for South Africa House in London which he finished in 1934. Back in South Africa he was painting again and had major exhibitions in Cape Town and Pretoria in 1935. He died in 1957.
Pierneef participated in many group exhibitions from 1911 in South Africa.
1913 - First of numerous solo exhibitions held in Pretoria and The Netherlands
1929 - Johannesburg group exhibition with Fanie Eloff
1948 - Tate Gallery, London, South African Art Exhibition
1950 - Pieter Wenning Gallery, Johannesburg, Retrospective Exhibition
1953 - Potchefstroom University for Christian High Education, Retrospective
1964 - Adler Fielding Gallery, Johannesburg, Pierneef Festival
1965 - Pretoria Art Museum
1965 - Johannesburg Art Gallery
1970 - Durban Art Gallery, "The Complete Wood-cuts of Pierneef" exhibition
1972 - Johannesburg Art Gallery, exhibition of watercolours
1973 - Pretoria Art Museum, exhibition of the Johannesburg Station panels
1974-75 - University of Stellenbosch, Rand Afrikaans University and Potchefstroom University for CHE, exhibition of the Marita J Pierneef Collection
1980/81 - Pretoria Art Museum, Johannesburg Art Gallery, Durban Art Gallery, William Humphreys Art Gallery, Kimberley, King George VI Art Gallery, Port Elizabeth and SA National Gallery, Cape Town, Pierneef and Van Wouw Retrospective Exhibition
1982 - Pretoria Art Museum, "The Pierneef Collection" Exhibition
1984 - Pretoria Art Museum, Commemorative Exhibition
1987 - Johannesburg Art Gallery, exhibition of the Johannesburg Station panels .
1935 - In this year he received the Medal for Visual Arts for his Station Panels as well as for his panels in South Africa House in London.
1951 - Honorary Doctorate, University of Natal
1957 - Honorary Doctorate of Philosophy, University of Pretoria
1957 - Honorary Membership of the South African Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns.
Pierneef's work is represented worldwide in many private and corporate collections.
Ann Bryant Gallery, East London, Arts Association Namibia Collection, Engelenberg House Art Collection, Pretoria, Johannesburg Art Gallery, King George VI Art Gallery, Port Elizabeth, National Cultural History and Open-Air Museum, Pretoria, National Museum, Bloemfontein, Pierneef Museum, Pretoria, Pietersburg Collection, Potchefstroom Museum, Durban Art Gallery, Pretoria Art Museum, Rand Africaans University, Sandton Municipal Collection, South African National Gallery, Cape Town, Namibia Administration Collection, Windhoek, University of Cape Town, University of Natal, University of the Orange Free State, University of South Africa, Pretoria, University of Stellenbosch, University of Pretoria, University of the Witwatersrand, Africana Museum, Johannesburg, William Humphreys Art Gallery, Kimberley.
1924 - Ficksburg High School, Orange Free State, Bushmen Panels
1929-32 - Johannesburg Railway Station panels
1933-35 - Panels for South Africa House in London
1937 - Mural for SS Pretoria Castle
1940 - Two large pictures, Johannesburg Magistrates Courts
1955 - Broadcast House, Johannesburg.
Pierneef died on the 4 October 1957 and is regarded as one of our best old masters.