Johan van Hell Biography

Johan van Hell




Dutch painter, printmaker, and musician Johannes “Johan” Gerdarus Diedrik van Hell was born in Amsterdam, Holland on February 28, 1889. Johannes was the third child of Jacobus, an engraver, and Aartje van Hell. Music and art were a part of Johan’s life beginning at an early age. His first visual arts teacher was the Dutch painter G.W. Knap, and he received his diploma in decorative painting in 1906 from the Quellinusschool (now the Gerrit Rietveld Academie), a school for sculptors and decorative artists in Amsterdam. In 1909, he received his teaching degree from the State College for Art Teachers; meanwhile, he studied clarinet and oboe at the Volkmuziekschool, and later with Piet Swager.

In 1911 he took up his first art teaching positions at the Hendrick de Keyer, J.P. Coen, and Frans Hals schools, all in Amsterdam. He also took up the position of permanent substitute clarinetist for the Concertgebouw Orchestra, while also giving private, and often free, music lessons on the side. Teaching, in both art and music, would become another passion in van Hell’s life. In 1915 he married artist and designer Pauline Wijnman, who was a member of the Social Democratic party of Amsterdam (SDA) and a staunch worker’s rights activist. She was credited with influencing the direction of van Hell’s work away from apolitical landscapes and still-lifes, to social realism and political imagery.

Van Hell became a dedicated Socialist, and strove to make his art available to the working class. Lessons in lithography at the van Leer company and woodcut lessons from the graphic artist J.G. Veldheer opened the door to new, more accessible forms of visual communication. Later in his career, Van Hell’s observations of daily life and struggle—market scenes, street vendors and musicians, women gathering to chat, families, industrial and service workers—became his hallmark.

In 1917 van Hell mobilized with the Dutch army for 20 months, and upon his return to Amsterdam in 1918 he joined the SDA, the Workers’ Youth League, and the NVV trade union, along with Pauline. 1921 saw his first exhibition, with the Rotterdamse Kunstkring (art circle), and he soon began to travel throughout France, Austria, and Switzerland, both to exhibit and to perform. In 1924, he won the bronze for the Netherlands in the Concours de peinture, for his painting “The Skaters”, at the summer Olympics, Paris.

Van Hell was instrumental in founding several organizations to help working class artists and musicians. Among them is the Art Association De Brug, the Netherlands Chamber Music Association, and the Association for the Promotion of Graphic Work. In 1932, he left the SDA as nationalistic views became more dominant, and joined the Independent Socialist party. Throughout, he performed concerts and exhibited art in shows that supported his social, economic, and political beliefs. In May of 1940, the Netherlands was invaded and occupied by Nazis, who imposed the fascist Culture Chamber to replace the various Socialist art and music associations. Van Hell refused to participate in the new Chamber.

Van Hell continued to pursue and to teach art and music until his death on December 31, 1952 of acute kidney failure. Having avoided any real monetary success or notoriety in favor of political and educational action, van Hell’s work fell mostly into obscurity until it was rediscovered in 1976 by Thom Mercuur, director of the Museum Coopmannhus. A retrospective was held that year at the Arnhems Gemeentemuseum, reintroducing his work to the world.