A stillness of baobabs by J.H. Pierneef leads Strauss & Co’s April offering by South Africa’s foremost landscape painter

25 Mar 2021

A beloved artist among collectors, the modernist painter and printmaker J.H. Pierneef once again graces the cover of Strauss & Co’s printed catalogue for its forthcoming live sale of 19th Century, Modern, Post-war and Contemporary art, Decorative arts, Jewellery and Fine Wine, due to be held over three days from 11 to 13 April.

Painted in 1952, Baobabs (estimate R2.5 – 3 million) is an iconic depiction of a stillness of baobabs in an unpeopled northern landscape. The work is a fine example of Pierneef’s ornamental late style.

“This is third time since 2009 that Pierneef appears on the cover of the catalogue for our marquee live sales,” says Bina Genovese, Strauss & Co’s joint managing director. “We are delighted to present this work to collectors. Strauss & Co is South Africa’s leading auction house for the sale of works by Pierneef. Since 2009 we have sold 615 lots by this master of the open range, achieving a combined value of R245 million for our clients.”

Baobab was consigned by a gentleman collector and forms part of a concise collection of important modern and post-war works that also comprises an early Pierneef still life from 1906 (estimate R250 000 – 350 000). Executed in charcoal and pencil, the drawing includes a ceramic bottle of Bols Genever, a Dutch spirit that inspired the cocktail revolution in nineteenth-century America. Mentored by sculptor Anton van Wouw, the drawing evidences Pierneef’s command of the principles of draughtsmanship.

These two contrasting lots from the property of a gentleman bookend a representative offering of ten lots by Pierneef in the April catalogue. A tireless traveller of his homeland, Fishing Boats, Hout Bay (estimate R2 – 3 million) portrays a classic Cape scene and features a pair of fishing boats backed by a row of coastal houses and mountains. Produced in 1942, the tonal harmonies and compositional balance are typical of his mature oil paintings. A similar work, Kaap Bloubergstrand, was sold in November 2020 for R2.6 million.

The northern landscapes of South Africa consistently served as inspiration and refuge for the artist throughout his adult life. Elephant Castle, Selati Rivier, Phalaborwa (estimate R1.8 – 2.4 million) depicts the confluence of the Selati and Olifants rivers outside Phalaborwa. Rich in natural mineral resources, the area depicted was mined for its copper and iron ore deposits over a thousand years ago. Soon after this painting was executed in 1945, phosphates were discovered and the mining town of Phalaborwa was established in 1957.

Other notable Pierneef oils in the April catalogue include Sunlit Mountains, Clarens (estimate R1.5 – 2 million), a bucolic post-impressionist scene suffused with a golden light. Produced in 1918, the work shows Pierneef’s adept use of the palette knife to construct his scene. Pierneef’s capacity to transpose the experience of time and light onto a canvas is similarly captured in Bethel Farm, near Kroonstad (estimate R180 000 – 240 000), an atmospheric work depicting a gabled farmstead in the gloaming. The artist originally gifted the work to a church minister in Kroonstad.

Pierneef transcended cliché in his portrayal of rural splendour and industriousness. This attribute won him many admirers, as well as clients. Commissioned by Johan Schoeman, Findlay Farm, Magaliesberg (estimate R1.2 – 1.6 million) portrays the region surrounding Hartbeespoort Dam, in particular a farm owned by John Findlay, one of Schoeman’s legal advisors. The work was made shortly after Pierneef’s divorce from his first wife, Agatha. While reconnoitring the area Pierneef met a young woman from the Netherlands, May Schoep, who he would marry six months later.

Pierneef constantly explored new techniques and formal approaches to describing what was essential and irrefutable about his rural and agricultural subjects. The 1925 pastel composition Wilgerbome (estimate R300 000 ­– 500 000) is typical of his experimental temperament and forms part of a concise body of works in pastel and pencil depicting willow trees. Pierneef’s brooding pastel drawings were made in the field along the pools formed by the Pienaars River on the farm Roodeplaat, north of Pretoria, and along the Vaal River. Dr Alastair Meredith, a senior art specialist at Strauss & Co, has frequently referred to Pierneef’s pastel works as among the artist’s most avant-garde compositions.

Two works depicting vast open ranges where the land is subordinated by vast skies round off the Pierneef offering. The oil on panel Mountainous Landscape (estimate R250 000 – 350 000) contains an arrangement of silvery mountains dwarfed by a large cumulous cloud form. The petite oil on card Extensive Landscape (estimate R150 000 – 200 000) similarly features a mountain at its midpoint, but it is the sky, a brushy collection of light blue, yellow, pink, mauve and purple brushmarks, that energises this study of solitude.

The sale of Pierneef’s four large-scale oils Baobabs, Fishing Boats, Hout Bay, Elephant Castle, Selati Rivier, Phalaborwa and Findlay Farm, Magaliesberg will take place on Tuesday, 13 April 2021. These premier lots form part of a consignment of ten noteworthy works by South Africa’s foremost landscape painter. Strauss & Co is proud to be handling these works on behalf of its clients.