Bust of Rob Graafland by Frans van der Laar, 1899

The origin of this life-size oak column, one of a pair, is a church in Maastricht (Onze Lieve Vrouwe Kerk). Since Rob Graafland had been trained as an architect, the priest of this church asked him to do some work inside the church. When Graafland had finished and the priest asked him about the costs, Graafland pointed at two oak columns. The priest agreed. (Source: Charles Graafland, son of Rob Graafland)

24 July 2017


Early Years 1875 - 1898

Robert Archibald Antonius Jean Graafland was born in Maastricht, the Netherlands, on Friday 26th November 1875. His father, Johan Graafland, was a banker who published two large illustrated books on heraldry: "Limburgsche Wapens" ("Coats of Arms of Families in Limburg") (1) in cooperation with J.M. v.d. Venne and "Encyclopédie Héraldique" ("Encyclopedia of Heraldry") (2), the latter both in French (main language) and Dutch, prepared for publication after his death by A. Stalins. In addition, Johan created heraldic wooden boards by burning and colouring coats of arms. A fine example is his large Graafland coat of arms board to celebrate the wedding of Rob Graafland and Maria Duquesne.

After the bank was dissolved in 1890, the Graafland family - five boys and three girls - moved to Nieuwer-Amstel, close to Amsterdam, and then to Amsterdam where Rob Graafland attended two schools at the same time: the Rijksnormaalschool voor Teekenonderwijzers, a school for training future teachers in the art of drawing, and the Quellinusschool, many years later renamed the Rietveld Academy. The purpose of the latter, founded by P. J. H. Cuypers in 1879, was to educate young people to become artisans while the Rijksmusem was being built, which was designed by Cuypers. The parents of Graafland wanted him to be trained as an architect, but Graafland himself had set his heart on becoming a painter and after taking his diploma in drawing in 1895 he enrolled at the Royal Academy of Art in Amsterdam. His teachers were Professor Augustus Allebé en Professor Carel L. Dake. During the next few years, Graafland taught at an evening art school in Amsterdam founded by a college friend of his, Gerrit Willem Knap, whose classes were very popular.

On 26th September 1898 Rob Graafland applied for a position at the Stadsteekeninstituut in Maastricht, an institute which provided a training course for young artisans. Graafland was accepted, and on 11th januari 1899 he settled down in Maastricht and moved a year later to Gronsveld, a hamlet near Maastricht. His two colleagues at the institute were Frans van der Laar, a sculptor from Sittard, and Willem Sprenger. The school started on 1st December 1898. Only three or four artists lived in Maastricht (34,000 people) around that time.

Sunday Art School

Graafland turned out to be an inspired teacher. One of his pupils, the writer Mathieu Kemp, wrote in "Limburgs Dagblad" ("Daily Newspaper of Limburg") on 2nd November 1956: "His great ability and pedagogic qualities earned him high esteem". Graafland did not limit himself to teaching drawing and painting skills, he also broadened the minds of his pupils by teaching music and literature. It was thanks to these lessons that Pierre and Mathieu Kemp got acquainted with the work of the Belgian poet Guido Gezelle, which would stimulate their literary careers a great deal. Pierre Kemp remembers in his "Proza" ("Prose") (1945) Graafland's "brilliant and inspiring leadership". Pierre Kemp signed his early poems (1909-1913) with the pseudonym of "Rob. Ree", a nom de plume composed of Graafland's first name, Rob, and the second note of the scales. Graafland was raised in the Christian faith, but as an adult he lost to some extent interest in Christianity.

In 1901 Rob Graafland founded the Zondagsschool voor Decoratieve Kunsten (Sunday Art School) in cooperation with the Stadsteekeninstituut. Graafland had made a start with this in 1899 and fifteen pupils had already signed up for this course who were willing to pay f 0.25 per lesson. In November 1899, therefore, Rob Graafland proposed the foundation of this Sunday Art School. His proposals were discussed at the meeting of the Stadsteekeninstituut on 30th November 1899, but the Committee decided not to support him. The reason being that if only twelve of the fifteen pupils were paying for this course, the proceeds would not cover all the expenses (apparently this was not a problem for Rob Graafland). In addition, the Committee disapproved of a course which would be a risk to the teacher without an existing official relationship with the Stadsteekeninstituut. The Stadsteekeninstituut itself was not yet ready to organise a Sunday Art School, since high ranking officials had decided that such a course would not be desirable for the time being. But in 1901 Graafland's proposals became reality. At the meeting of 26th November 1901, the Committee decided to start a painting course in January 1902 on Sunday mornings from 9am to 12pm. Graafland was appointed teacher, teaching drawing and painting skills, and the venue would be in the .............. (unreadable in the minutes) of Graafland. The official name would be the Zondagsschool voor Decoratieve Kunsten or Zondagsschilderschool (Sunday Art School). Thanks to Graafland's experiences as a teacher in Amsterdam and during the past three years at the Stadsteekeninstituut he was able to choose the most talented pupils, like Edmond Bellefroid, Hermann Bopp, Jules Brouwers, P. Coenen, Guillaume Eberhard, Jean Grégoire, Charles Hollman, Hull, Han Jelinger, Henri Jonas, Mathieu and Pierre Kemp, Victor Marres, Joep Narinx, Nicolaas, Jan and Jos Postmes, Vic Reynders, Harry Schoonbrood, Willy Schoonhoven van Beurden, Selinger and Charles Vos. They were known as "The Class of Graafland". In winter, Graafland and his pupils were also painting in the Augustijnerkerk (church) in Maastricht. In summer, they were painting in the countryside "en plein air". As from 1911, the lessons were to be held in the Italian garden of Graafland's place at St Pieter near Maastricht.

Marriage and Visit to America

On 19th August 1902 Rob Graafland married Maria Duquesne. Their honeymoon took them to Italy and they travelled around the country for quite some time. Italy, and especially Venice, were the inspiration for Graafland for creating colourful paintings between 1909 and 1919. When the couple returned to Maastricht, Graafland had a large detached villa built designed by himself, "Villa Aldegonda". Their first child was born in December 1903, a daughter called Suzanna.

In 1905 Graafland travelled to the USA. It is debatable how long he stayed there for, but it must have been a few months.Three postcards sent to Miss W Jelinger in Maastricht are respectively dated New York 4th June 1905, New York 19th June 1905 and New York 6th July 1905. The purpose of this visit was to meet American painters and to find out about their artistic development. This was quite unusual since other painters, like the Haagsche School (Art School of The Hague), would visit Paris for the same purpose. Why did Graafland choose America? Nobody knows. Graafland himself has never explained his reasons. Mrs Yvonne Graafland-Marres, daughter-in-law of Rob Graafland, says about this visit in an interview with Ieneke Suidman for the art magazine Kunstwerk (Work of Art) (3): "Nobody understood the motivation for this journey". The reasons for Graafland's visit to the USA must have been a sense of adventure focussed on Amerika and a strong artistic curiosity. It is possible that he kept in touch with the artist Antoon Molkenboer who lived in the USA from 1905 to 1910, as well as with the painter Hubert Vos – a nephew of his pupil Charles Vos - who lived in the USA. Molkenboer and Graafland had been pupils at the Rijksnormaalschool voor Teekenonderwijzers in Amsterdam at the same time and they must have known each other. However, Molkenboer lived in New York in 1905 for only six months, and the question is whether this period coincided with Graafland's visit to New York. But Rob Graafland did meet up with Hubert Vos on Long Island. This must have been in April or May 1905, or even earlier, since in June 1905 Hubert Vos arrived at the palace in Beijing to paint a portrait of the empress dowager of China, Cixi, and he returned to New York in 1906. Unfortunately, there is little known of Graafland's travels across the USA. He was painting with American fellow painters "en plein air" on Staten Island (New York); he visited Hubert Vos on Long Island; he managed to get many commissions for paintings; and he paid a visit to an Indian reservation where he nearly got killed upon arrival. Only by making a quick drawing of the magnificently dressed up chief in front of his tribe did they stop threatening him and did they actually treat him kindly. Back in Maastricht he wrote to the art critic Plasschaert to be extremely glad to be home again.

Graafland as Illustrator

After his return to Maastricht a son was born in January 1906, called Charles. Due to financial problems Graafland was forced to sell his house and the family moved to Belgium. As from 2nd September 1907 they stayed for a short while in Liège and then they moved to Wandre, a hamlet only a few miles from the Dutch border. Every day Graafland travelled by carriage between Wandre and Maastricht to carry on teaching at the Stadsteekeninstituut, and he also continued with his Sunday Art School lessons which were getting more and more popular. A few people asked him for private tuition, like the brothers of the monastery de Beyard in Maastricht. It was at this monastery that he met Brother Cyprianus whose educational and religious books for schoolchildren he would be illustrating for many years. These books were read by schoolchildren all over the Netherlands. Mathieu Kemp, one of his former pupils and a writer, called Graafland one of the most outstanding illustrators for Catholic youth literature. In addition, Graafland illustrated novels for youngsters. His two children, Suzanna en Charles, and his wife Maria, were often models for these drawings. One of the novels of Albertine Steenhoff-Smulders was titled "Een Kind van 1813" ("Child of 1813" - 1813 being the year of the arrival of the Prince of Orange in Holland). The photo below Child of 1813 shows Rob Graafland, three friends and his two children posing for the backdrop of the drawing on the front cover of this book. The other two photos show his children and friends posing as characters of "Child of 1813" while Graafland was making sketches on a balcony. It is not clear when Graafland started illustrating. He illustrated, as far as is known, for two publishers: Malmberg in 's Hertogenbosch, like: "Zien en Zeggen" ("See and Say"), "Gods Volk" ("God's People"), and de Spaarnestad in Haarlem, like: "Een Kind van 1813" ("Child of 1813"), "Bij Oom in Indië" ("Visiting Uncle in Indonesia"). "Zien en Zeggen" ("See and Say") was first published in 1914. "Een Kind van 1813" ("Child of 1813") was published in 1915 or 1916. It may well be that these were not the first books Graafland had illustrated. And he also illustrated weekly and monthly magazins. But whenever Graafland may have started illustrating, he illustrated all his life, even when he was seriously ill. Graafland was extremely successful with his illustrations and he was so much in demand that he asked a former pupil of "The Class of Graafland", Edmond Bellefroid, to assist him.

The Italian Garden of Graafland

On 21st March 1911, the Graafland family moved from Wandre to a big house with a large garden at St Pieter near Maastricht. The next eight years were to be the happiest of Graafland's life and his creativity was to reach its peak. He abandoned the Rembrandt-like colours in which he had predominantly been painting - many of his paintings of the past ten years he destroyed - and he developed a style of his own, a romantic impressionism: colourful romantic compositions which expressed the beauty of life.
In those days St Pieter was surrounded by lonely fields that stretched as far as the St Pietersberg (St Pieters Mountain). Graafland had the large garden at the back of his beautiful house turned into an Italian garden on different levels. Two life-size stone lions, sculptured by his friend the sculptor Frans van der Laar, gave access to the garden. A dirt road meandered between oak trees, apple trees, spruce, lilacs and flowerbeds, past elegant wrought-iron benches, vases, columns, sculptures and a few fountains with statues, the largest statue created by Frans van der Laar. There also was a pond guarded by four life-size lions on columns. Many parties were held in this garden, like the gondola parties when the tranquillity of the pond was shattered by the party's singing and laughter in gondolas, copies of the Venetian gondolas. This Italian garden features in many of Graafland's paintings between 1911 and 1919. As from now on, the pupils of the Zondagsschilderschool (Sunday Art School) were being taught in this garden. Graafland himself was painting day and night. His son Charles remembered his father getting up in the middle of the night to work on his paintings.
In 1962 Frits Goovaerts, son of the painter Henri Goovaerts, put his feelings about the Italian garden into words when he wrote to Suzanna, Graafland's daughter: "Often I can see the valley of the [river] Maas in front of me and the fields of the farmers at St Pieter, the way it used to be. I told Charles [Graafland's son] how well I remember your garden. That dreamy silence of a late summer day, when apples were floating in the fountain, while the white lions were staring away, meditatingly, and I could hear the droning of a farm cart returning from the fields across the mayor's shed. It was so delightfully quiet without the noise of planes and mopeds. And how could we know how vile the world can be? It only lasted for a short time, but it was a very beautiful time indeed."
Charles Graafland mentioned this garden in a speech for his sister on 28th December 1963: "In the middle of a round pond there were statues, the pond was surrounded by four life-size sculptured stone lions, proud and forbidding like merciless guards. The water bounced off rays of the sun and looked like millions of glittering diamonds..... In the distance I could hear the bass voice of Joseph Joosten singing, accompanied by piano and guitar; through the iron gates the pupils walked into the garden to paint you below a tree....."

Jean van de Voort writes about Graafland in "Kunst in Limburg" ("Art in Limburg"): "Beside a strong personal style, you can see in all of his paintings, in a brilliance that cannot be ignored, the beautiful reflection of an intimate, poetical emotion, which turns every painting into a colourful poem." Graafland did indeed sometimes choose the theme of a poem to express it on canvas. Van de Voort: "Young Love (1918), is the poetical expression of the poem by Gottfried Mann:"

"The sun was high in the sky, spring echoed in the leaves,
The whole world was singing around them,
He moved the face, whisp'ring, towards her,
Next to the little head beside him, red of a rose blush..."

Poetry and music had a great influence on Graafland's life. It was thanks to listening to the "Schöpfung" by Hayden that Graafland, after his long illness, started painting again. Van de Voort: "Each time when Graafland paints the noblest in the world, the human being, he manages to avoid, what many people are sometimes shocked by in modern art, and the rough brush strokes of colour create, refined, the ethereal face."

Other artists joined Graafland, like the painters Herman Gouwe, Chris Hammes and Willem van Konijnenburg; Henri Hermans, conductor of the Maastrichter Stedelijk Orkest (Maastricht City Orchestra); and the opera singer Joseph Joosten. Graafland's place became a meeting place for artists and pupils. In the evenings and on Sundays they enjoyed making music and discussing anything they were interested in. Henri Hermans played the harmonium accompanying Joseph Joosten who was singing arias, Charles Hollman played the cello, and Graafland had a pleasant tenor voice and performed songs of "Schöpfung" from Hayden and recited poems from Schubert. Graafland loved music. He owned a pianola which was playing while he was painting and for which new rolls were delivered every week; Mozart and Tchaikovsky were his favourites. Another popular meeting place was Café Suisse at the Vrijthof in Maastricht, and they were given the nickname "The Gang of Suisse". Herman Gouwe from Alkmaar visited Maastricht for the first time in 1908. Graafland introduced him to Café Suisse and Gouwe introduced him in Amsterdam to the Larensche Kunsthandel (Art Gallery) and to the Sint-Lucasgilde (Society). Gouwe stayed with the Graafland family whenever he was visiting Maastricht and in his unpublished autobiography he wrote about Graafland: "He lived in a big and beautiful house on the edge of Maastricht, at St Pieter. He was very popular and his character was light-heartedly philosophical en his paintings were full of joy" (p. 20). And in 1959 Gouwe wrote about his meeting with Mrs Suzanna Twaalfhoven-Graafland: "I had known Mrs Twaalfhoven as from her very early youth, for she was the daughter of my friend and colleague Graafland in Maastricht where I used to stay when visiting Limburg in summer" (p. 79). And also in 1959 about Twaalfhoven-Graafland's house in Maastricht: "There was a large painting on the wall 'Ploughing Horses' which I had made for my friend Graafland a long time ago" (p. 80). After Gouwe had settled down in Tahiti, Suzanna Graafland corresponded with him until his death. And Gouwe used to send her paintings from Tahiti to be sold.


The first time Rob Graafland took part in an exhibition was in 1908, in the Larensche art gallery in Amsterdam. He deliberately chose Amsterdam because he did not want to confine himself to Maastricht. In 1910 he wrote to the Dutch art critic Plasschaert: "I destroyed all my paintings, until I had to take part in exhibitions, which is about two years ago". But he did sell paintings in his studios. His painting Le cygne méchant, exhibited in the Larensche art gallery in 1908, made such a favourable impression on the committee of St Lucas (St Lucas Art Society) in Amsterdam that Graafland was invited to become a member of their society in 1909. On 5th May 1910 Graafland took part in their exhibition in the Stedelijk Museum (City Museum) in Amsterdam. Among the other artists were Piet Mondriaan, Jan Sluyters and Martin Monnickendam. Graafland also took part in exhibitions in the south of England, in coastal villages.

Art Society of the Province of Limburg

St Lucas inspired Graafland to found the Limburgse Kunstkring (Art Society of the Province of Limburg) along with other painters in 1910. These painters were Jan Bakhoven, Guillaume Eberhard, Herman Gouwe, Henri Jonas, Johannes van der Kooij, Jos Narinx and Vic Reinders. Graafland became chairman and their first exhibition took place in the Dominicanenkerk (church) in Maastricht in March of the same year. The dazzling colours and romantic themes of Graafland's fifty paintings, among others "Pic-Nic", caught everyone's attention.

The Bronze Medal and the Gold Medal

In 1912, Graafland was invited to take part in the Exposition Internationale Musée Municipale in the Stedelijk Museum (City Museum) in Amsterdam. For his painting "Lezend meisje" ("Girl Reading") he was awarded the Bronze Medal of the City of Amsterdam.

In 1916, Graafland introduced the work of two of his pupils, Henri Jonas and Guillaume Eberhard, at St Lucas (St Lucas Art Society) in Amsterdam. He himself exhibited two paintings at St Lucas, "Levensvreugde" ("Joy of Life") and "Meisjes in de zon" ("Girls in the Sun"). In September of the same year Graafland was invited for an exhibition of the 's-Hertogenbosche Kunstkring (Art Society of 's-Hertogenbosch) and for these two paintings he was awarded the Gold Medal, which was presented to him by Queen Wilhelmina. When Graafland returned home from Amsterdam, the local brassband serenaded him the same evening.

Henri Jonas, a pupil of "The Class of Graafland", moved to Amsterdam in 1917 to study at the Royal Academy of Art. Graafland had managed to get a scholarship for him from the council of Maastricht.

In 1920, Graafland was invited by the society The Netherlands Abroad to take part in a number of exhibitions in England: Brighton, London, Sunderland, Bredford and Blackpool. Graafland's entries were "Joy of Life" en "Young Love".

Robert Graafland had now reached the pinnacle of his career. As a teacher, he had educated talented pupils and introduced them in Amsterdam where they could take part in exhibitions. As an artist he was acknowledged and admired, his paintings had made him famous both in Limburg and Holland. In addition, his was a happy marriage and he enjoyed being a father. All these years he had been struggling to develop himself and his pupils, and his enthusiasm and dedication had known no bounds. But then, suddenly, it was all over.

Setbacks and Depression

Graafland faced a financial crisis. At the end of the First World War he lost a valuable life insurance which was invested in the German Empire before 1914, as one used to do in those days. Another investment in Maastricht also failed. At the same time Graafland started suffering from ill-health. He became depressed, and these depressions occurred more and more often. And his pupils had grown up and gone their own way, which Graafland had always encouraged them to do. In addition, there was an art school in Maastricht for working-class children, founded by a cleric called Rutten and the writer Fons Olterdissen, which enjoyed a growing popularity. There were days that Graafland was too ill to work, and those days turned into months, years. In November 1919, at the age of forty-four, he was granted a pension and he retired from the Stadsteekeninstituut. It was the end of the Sunday Art School.

On 29th August 1922, the Graafland family moved from St Pieter to Maastricht. Rob Graafland was no longer able to paint anymore, physically and mentally, until 1934. However, he managed to do some other kinds of work. He became an art teacher at a school for domestic science in Maastricht, for which he also designed patterns for carpets, cushions and tapestries. He became chairman of the Schoonheidscommissie in Maastricht, Valkenburg and Houthem (Heritage Maastricht). And he continued illustrating children books and weekly and monthly magazins.


In 1933 Graafland's depression worsened and he harmed himself and lost his right eye. He was admitted to a hospital in Apeldoorn and afterwards to a hospital in Vught. Ironically enough, some time later he recovered from his illness; after fourteen years he could paint again. On 29th September 1933 the Graafland family moved from Maastricht to Vught. But Graafland was no longer the man he used to be, he had changed, as he wrote on 7th September 1935 to the Dutch art critic Plasschaert. During the next few years Graafland devoted himself to painting portraits. But he also painted dancing-girls, nudes, children, mother and child and horses. His painting "Levensbron" ("Source of Life") won first prize at an exhibition organised by the City of 's Hertogenbosch. In February 1936 Graafland organised an exhibition of his work in The Hague, his first exhibition since 1923, and a few months later he took part in the Olympic Games exhibition in Berlin in 1936. For his portrait of the horseman Charles Pahud de Mortanges on his horse Mädel-Wie-Du, Graafland received the Bronze Medal.

Two years later Graafland moved from Vught to The Hague, he wanted to become part of life again. Many of his paintings created in The Hague were destroyed by the allied bombardment of The Hague on 3rd March 1945. A year later, life became too much for him and Graafland moved back to his former house in Vught. In September 1938 Graafland took part in the exhibition Veertig Jaar Limburgsche Kunst (Forty Years of Art in Limburg) in Maastricht. His five paintings drew the attention of many visitors.

Graafland explains his motivation for his art

In 1940 Graafland started suffering from a deadly illness and he rapidly grew weaker and weaker. His final painting was a young bride with a bouquet of flowers in her folded hands, he was unable to finish it off. Graafland was admitted to the St Joseph Hospital in Heerlen and he died during an operation in the morning of Sunday 28th April 1940.

Robert Graafland explained his motivation for his art at two exhibitions. At the first exhibition, a solo exhibition, in 's-Hertogenbosch in January 1937 he said when thanking the mayor of 's-Hertogenbosch, baron F. van Lanschot, for opening his exhibition:

"If my work has contributed to people's happiness and if I - in case an artist's vocation is like that of the Apostles', however small mine may be - have succeeded in showing the beauty and purity of God's Creation, then my work has not been in vain."

At the second exhibition in Maastricht in 1938 in honour of the 40th anniversary of Queen Wilhelmina's accession to the throne, Graafland expressed this in a slightly different way:

"It will be my reward if my work has contributed to and increased people's happiness."

And on 1st October 1938 Rob Graafland had written to his friend and colleague Charles Hollman: "....... Fortunately your romantic nature is still present in your work; for, of course, in these rational, businesslike times we certainly need a bit of romanticism. It is obvious that whatever happens in the world will influence artists, but it is a fact that, the more businesslike and rational life turns out to be, people's desire for romanticism will increase. After all, romanticism is an integral part of life."

© Fr Graafland 2018

(1) Limburgsche wapens, Van Aelst, Maastricht, 1925

(2) Encyclopédie Héraldique / Heraldische Encyclopedie, W.P. Van Stockum & Zoon, Den Haag, 1932

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