(n/a) Jacob Hendrik Pierneef (South African, 1886-1957)
The baobab tree oil on canvas 112 x 142.5cm (44 1/8 x 56 1/8in).
Provenance: Gifted by the artist to Charles te Water (1887-1964); Bequeathed to his widow Maisie te Water (1895-1984); Louis Schachat, Die Kunskamer, Cape Town; A private collection.
Exhibited: London, Tate Gallery, Overseas Exhibition of South African Art, 1948, no. 77.
This painting is unquestionably a product of Pierneef at his finest. The majestic baobab tree stands proud, dominating the landscape, with the five people at the foot of the tree and the signs of human habitation in the background dwarfed by comparison. It is reasonable to assume that The baobab tree was painted around 1934. It is certainly consistent with Pierneefs style at the time and there is another painting of a baobab tree painted in1934 which in terms of style and composition is very similar to The baobab tree.
The colours used in the painting are naturalistic but with overtones of the symbolic quality that Pierneef also strove for - a legacy of the influence on Pierneef of the Dutch artist and philosopher of art, Willem Van Konijnenburg (1868 1943). The early influences of Art Nouveau, particularly evident in the tracery of the branches, are here fully assimilated into Pierneefs mature and assured style. As can so clearly be seen in this painting, Pierneef did not strive to capture a particular time of day or atmospheric effect in his landscapes - instead, he strove to depict the most typical and essential. The tree and, indeed the landscape and figures, have an emblematic quality. This painting, therefore, is a magnificent example of Pierneefs achievement in creating a landscape painting that is uniquely and essentially South African.
Te Water was born in Graaff-Reinet in 1887 and died in Cape Town in 1964. He received a higher education in Cape Town, Edinburgh and Cambridge where he took the LL.B. degree in 1910. He served as High Commissioner in London from 1929 to 1939, as well as representing South Africa at the League of Nations, becoming President of the League Assembly in 1933. He afterwards represented South Africa in several countries and from 1951 to 1956 was the director of the South African Reserve Bank. He also acquitted himself well in several spheres of public life and was Chairman of the South African Association of Arts from 1941 to 1947.
While Te Water was serving as the High Commissioner in London, Pierneef was given the commission to paint the murals for South Africa House in London. On 27 June 1933 the Pierneef family left Pretoria for London. Pierneef completed the murals by May 1934. Pierneef accepted a further commission from Te Water to paint five works for the dining-room in South Africa House. The room was officially opened on 31 May 1934 and was known as the Pierneef Room.
Charles te Water was close friends with the artist and June te Water, his granddaughter, recounts that on a visit to Pierneefs studio her grandfather saw The baobab tree languishing, unfinished in a corner of the atelier. Te Water encouraged Pierneef that the work was a fine painting and that he should complete the picture. This he duly did and then presented the painting to te Water.
The 1948 Tate exhibition was the first major undertaking by the South African Association of Arts. A panel of Association members with the assistance of John Rothenstein of the Tate formed the selection committee and the exhibition subsequently toured various centres in the United Kingdom and Europe
We are grateful to Joe Dolby at the South African National Gallery, Cape Town, for his assistance with the preparation of this catalogue entry.