This painting is part of a defining body of early work executed by JH Pierneef in 1918, during one of his many camping excursions to Rooiplaat Farm with his godfather and artistic mentor Anton Van Wouw. Here, they would spend their time sketching and painting vignettes of the area around the banks of the Pienaars River. 1918 was a crucial turning point in Pierneef’s life, both personally and artistically; leaving his post at the State Library after 9 years, he would briefly take up a position as an Art Lecturer at the Heidelberg College of Art before abandoning teaching to dedicate his full attention to art.
The Piernaars Rivier is a region that reoccurs frequently in Pierneef’s oeuvre, which he began exploring during his school years with friends, Fanie Eloff and Gordon Leith. Returning later with Van Wouw, he would begin to produce a singular brand of post-impressionism that was responsive to the unique atmospheric conditions of the southern African landscape.
Reflecting on this early period, Esme Berman writes “In his earliest work he remained faithful to the tenets of his tutors. He aimed at factual truthfulness in depicting the face of nature and he disciplined himself by drawing endless studies of trees and fragments of the landscape – a practice which he maintained throughout his life” 1.
As she further notes, the human figure would seldom appear in his compositions, with the natural world taking preference over the constructed human environment. The present lot is thus a rare example of a sentimental scene of domesticity, depicting the campsite where Pierneef and Van Wouw would spend their time discussing a new direction for South African art that was not stifled by the outmoded norms and traditions of the English canon that dominated the artistic trends of the time.
Executed with a noticeably dry brush, the painting demonstrates Pierneef’s already confident understanding of light and command of pictorial depth. Deploying a method that would remain consistent in his later work, Pierneef utilizes the landscape as theatrical setting to frame the focus of his picture. The wind swept grass in the foreground seems to part, inviting the viewer’s eye to pause and investigate the structural elements of the composition, where a lone cook tends to pots of a flickering fire. Hanging on the tree are the coats and hats of Pierneef and his companions, who presumably stare back with the viewer, into the scorching sun of this bushveld afternoon.