This remarkable painting by Jacob Hendrik Pierneef has an illustrious provenance. It was acquired from the artist by Johannes Lambertus van Schaik (1888 – 1965) on 25th November 1949 and inherited by his son Jan Jacob van Schaik (1917 – 2009). The former came to South Africa from Holland in 1911 and joined the bookseller De Bussy in Johannesburg. In 1914 he founded the bookselling and publishing house J L van Schaik in Pretoria. The business flourished and on his death his two sons Jan and Hans continued to run the company until 1986 when it was sold to Nasionale Pers. It still continues to trade under the name Van Schaiks.
Acquired from the artist’s studio shortly after it was painted, the provenance is evidence of the close and supportive relationship between the artist and the bibliophile. As a patron of the arts, Van Schaik is known to have collected impressive works that include Irma Stern’s Gladioli, on Strauss & Co’s 11th October sale in Cape Town. The fact that he selected this particular painting is evidence of its importance in Pierneef’s oeuvre.
Viewed from the Nelshoogte plateau along the southern part of the Mpumalanga escarpment area west of the town of Barberton, the painting offers a spectacular view of the valley with the river coursing into the distance. The foreground has an astonishing wealth of detail in the vegetation and thorn trees so emblematic of Pierneef’s landscape paintings.
The title alerts us to the artist’s thoughts as he traced the contours of this remarkable area. Kaapschehoop, a tiny hamlet in the Barberton district, was one of the first places in which alluvial gold deposits were discovered in the 1880s. Prospectors, seeing in the 10 000 square kilometre valley a resemblance to the Cape of Good Hope with Table Mountain towering above it, named it De Kaap valley and their incorrigible optimism gave rise to the official name of the hamlet. Pierneef’s painting thus becomes a cultural meditation on the origins of the gold industry that gave first Barberton and then the Witwatersrand their raison d’être.
Pierneef succeeds in achieving both a breadth of vision and a depth of perspective by structuring his composition in astute ways. The rolling hills and the sloping mountains that are arranged in a series of interlocking diagonals, encourage our eye to travel to the edges of the painting and back to its centre, emphasising the width of the landscape. Linear perspective that leads one’s eye, via the zigzagging river to the vanishing point and aerial perspective with warm colours that advance in the foreground and with cool, receding colours in the background, provide the impression of deep space.
The result is a painting that is breathtaking in its scale and ability to evoke the vastness of the South African landscape. While the artist’s compositional strategies lend complexity to the painting, the apparently endless variations lull one into a sense of wonder and satisfaction.
The late J. L. van Schaik and thence by descent