Johan van Hell Biography

Johan van Hell




Johannes “Johan” Gerdarus Diedrik van Hell, painter, printmaker, and musician, was born in Amsterdam, Holland on 28 February 1889. Johannes was the third child of Jacobus, an engraver, and Aartje van Hell. Music and art were part of Johan’s life from an early age. His first visual arts teacher was the Dutch painter Geritt Willem. 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, van Hell 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, van Hell began his teaching career at the Hendrick de Keyer, J.P. Coen and Frans Hals schools in Amsterdam. He also became the permanent substitute clarinetist for the Concertgebouw Orchestra, while also giving private, and often free, music lessons on the side. In 1915, he married artist and designer Pauline Wijnman, who was a member of the Social Democratic party of Amsterdam (SDA) and a staunch workers’ rights activist. She was credited with influencing the direction of van Hell’s work from apolitical landscapes and still life toward 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 Jacob Gerard Veldheer opened the door to new, more accessible forms of visual communication. Later in his career, van Hell’s observations of market scenes, street vendors and musicians, women gathering to chat, families, and industrial and service workers, became his hallmark.

In 1917, van Hell mobilized with the Dutch army for twenty months, and upon his return to Amsterdam in 1918 he joined the SDA, the Workers’ Youth League, and the Dutch Confederation of Trade Unions (NVV). His first exhibition took place in 1921 with the Rotterdamse Kunstkring, and he soon began to travel throughout France, Austria, and Switzerland, both to exhibit and to perform. He won the bronze for the Netherlands in the Concours de peinture, for his painting The Skaters, at the summer Olympics, Paris in 1924.

Van Hell was instrumental in founding several organizations to help working class artists and musicians, including 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 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 31 December 1952 from 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 't Coopmanshûs in Franeker. A retrospective on van Hell was first featured in Franeker that same year before traveling to various museums including the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.