Widely considered the forerunner of Cape Impressionism, Pieter Wenning’s dreamy, poetic scenes point towards a longing for a home and a peaceful place to live out his life, in the safety and bounty of nature…
Words: Nick van der leek
In my journey to find Pieter Wenning, I head to the Cape. But Pieter Wenning is not easy to find. His life and works predate those of great artists that followed him, including the likes of Pierneef and Tinus de Jongh. I soon labour under the impression that the subjects he painted have long since disappeared.
It’s easy to believe, driving through the suburbs of Cape Town, that his serene country homes and farmyards – the centrepieces of the first farms, places teeming with life, and brimming with Frontier Feel – have disappeared entirely. These were homes hewn by hands, their materials drawn from hillsides and surrounding brush; the floors unearthed from nearby clays and cow dung, the first roofs invariably yellow thatch skirts rising towards a smoking chimney.
These were the days when streams could be used for washing, and irons were heated in a fire. When passers-by were red-coated soldiers, sailors, or slaves and getting around was on foot, by horse, by train or by ship. Meat had to be shot for dinner. Cows had to be milked for cream and butter. Bread was home-baked. Eggs, still warm, had to be fetched from the coop.
Wenning’s work was all about painting an expanding frontier. But unlike Tinus and Pierneef, he was less preoccupied with monumental backdrops. Instead, Wenning became absorbed, even intoxicated, by the almost fairytale simplicity of the frontier. Its beautiful, humble beginnings. Its deep, rustic connection to nature.
His pictures have the dreamy quality of being filled with colour and light, yet remain somehow unfocused and vague. Yet his subjects are unmistakably the first homes of the earliest settlements. Nature is abundant. Green is splashed everywhere. He depicts slowly decaying homesteads beneath fluffy white clouds hanging in dreamy blue skies.
Genuine frontier homes no longer exist today because so few wild landscapes are left. But when you stare at it for long enough, his daydream speaks to you. And in time I came to see that many abandoned homes still litter lonely countrysides today. There is something in the neglect, the half-broken walls, the yielding timbers, and the overgrown gardens that surround these structures, that is distinctly Wenning.
If Wenning represented humble beginnings perhaps it is because Wenning himself came from beginnings humbler than most. In Friesland during the 1880s, Wenning’s father made a modest living trading in art prints and materials. Even at a young age, Pieter Wenning’s art teacher encouraged his drawing and painting efforts, but his parents persuaded him to join the Dutch Railways. He married at age 25 but four years later lost his job following a strike against the company. Three years later he found work in a bookstore in Amsterdam, which transferred him to a franchise in Pretoria.
In 1908 Wenning bought a home in Sunnyside, and painted and studied art in his free time, supplementing his modest living with translation work at the Supreme Court. In 1909 he began to paint in oils. Although Wenning experimented with etchings, and held an exhibition, his efforts to sell his work (displayed in the windows of his bookshop) were not very fruitful.
In 1913 his company sent him to Cape Town, where he met DC Bonzaaier, who became a lifelong friend. After a second visit to Cape Town in 1915, Wenning returned to Pretoria, and began working in an art store after losing his job in the book store. In 1916 he revisited Cape Town, with three month’s leave to devote to painting. Sombre early works gave way progressively to spontaneous works bursting with colour and lyricism. But Wenning was still struggling to make ends meet, and his health suffered.
The self-critical Wenning, who often painted in the rain, almost destroyed all his work during one of these early visits to the Cape, but his friend Bonzaaier convinced him otherwise. The Cape Times, on 25 October 1916, described a Wenning painting as ‘a particularly beautiful picture of the Malay Quarter’. In the 1916/1917 winter issue of a magazine called The Studio, an auctioneer provided this insight, ‘the people of South Africa are beginning (to notice) a master of rare charm and ability’.
In 1917, Wenning based himself at the Vineyard Hotel in Newlands, Cape Town, while selling works depicting scenes along the East Coast of Africa as far as Lourenco Marques (Maputo). In the same year he was commissioned to paint the Vrouemonument (Women’s Memorial) in Bloemfontein. Wenning – despite bad weather, a worldwide flu pandemic, and serious health and financial issues of his own – continued to paint. Meanwhile, at last some of Wenning’s work began to sell in some of the first art auctions in South Africa.
By 1919 Wenning was described by Johannesburg’s Ernest Lizard – an art auctioneer – as ‘one of the great classical painters of South Africa’. It was the same year that his wife died and, after some months working in the Lowveld, he returned, seriously ill, to Cape Town. He did not paint again but left for Pretoria in 1921, and died there in the same year.
It is no surprise, looking at his art, and the vibrant longing of his simple subject matter, that his friends described him as a dreamer. His interest in philosophy and his rejection of formal religion meant even his funeral was a humble affair conducted by laymen.
In the same year that Wenning was finally laid to rest, Tinus de Jongh arrived at the Cape. Meanwhile Wenning’s legacy had already begun to grow. Exhibitions were held in 1925 and 1931 to commemorate and celebrate Wenning’s art. Twenty years later, as seems to happen with every noteworthy South African artist, fakes and forgeries entered the market.
It is strange that Wenning is not more famous than he is in this country because it turns out that Wenning started what we now call Cape Impressionism, and his influence was felt by generations of South African artists that followed. Why then is Wenning not a household name?
Perhaps his modest works – very few exceed 50 x 50cm – can explain why he is sometimes overlooked. But if a fair-sized oil painting by Tinus de Jongh fetches R35 000, the same scene, the same size, by a Pieter Wenning is worth around R350 000. Tragically, even when Wenning was desperate for funds to pay for a serious operation needed by his wife (who died a few days after her operation), the most his art fetched was R30 (£15). Recently his Apies River and Union Buildings sold for R 1 225 400.
The reason behind the tremendous value of Wenning’s artistic endowment to us, comes from, I believe, the great struggle that was his life. Wenning struggled more than most artists, and thus his dreams were more earnest than most, and he gave his art to us by paying a high personal price. He enjoyed none of the simplest things he dreamed of – a home of his own, a place for his family to live out their lives.
Was he too poor to have children? Or too ill? He seemed preoccupied by settings that would have seemed ordinary to anyone else. But for someone simply trying to make his way in the world, to pay his debts, to stay alive, it is no wonder the scenes spun around him were as vivid but untouchable as dreams.
Perhaps this is why his art, uniquely, is known for its ebullience of green. Groenplaas (Green Farm) is one example. His sensitive, but independent view of the country was more than just a description of it. It was a dream that lives in many, if not all South Africans to this day. A dream of a place in the country to call home.