"After all, romance is an essential part of life"

Rob Graafland in a letter to his close friend and colleague Charles Hollman

1 October 1938

Early Years 1875 - 1900

On Friday 26 November 1875, Robert Archibald Antonius Jean Graafland was born in Maastricht, the capital of the southern Limburg province of the Netherlands, as second son of Johan Magdalenus Leo and Francisca Suzanne Geertruide Mols. The Graafland family were originally from Amsterdam where they, since 1600, had been members of an oligarchy, called Regenten (Regents), which were families governing towns and provinces in the Dutch Republic. His father, Johan Graafland, was a banker, but above all a heraldist who published two large illustrated books on heraldry: 'Limburgsche Wapens' ('Coats of Arms of Families in Limburg'), in cooperation with J.M. v.d. Venne, and 'Encyclopédie Héraldique' / 'Heraldische Encyclopedie' ('Encyclopedia of Heraldry'), the latter both in French (main language) and Dutch. Johan also created heraldic wooden boards by burning and colouring coats of arms. A fine example is the large Graafland coat of arms board to celebrate the wedding of Rob Graafland and Maria Duquesne.

On 4 November 1890, after the bank was dissolved, the Graafland family - three girls and five boys - moved to Nieuwer-Amstel, close to Amsterdam, and later on to Amsterdam where Rob Graafland attended two schools at the same time: the Rijksnormaalschool voor Teekenonderwijzers (school for training future teachers in the art of drawing), and the Quellinusschool, many years later renamed the Gerrit Rietveld Academy. The purpose of the latter, founded by the architect P. J. H. Cuypers in 1879, was to educate young people to become artisans for building the Rijksmuseum, which was designed by Cuypers. Rob Graafland's parents wanted him to be trained as an architect but Graafland himself had set his heart on becoming a painter and after taking a course in architecture at Cuyper's studio and, at his parents' request, taking his diploma in drawing in 1895, he enrolled at the Royal Academy of Art in Amsterdam. His teachers were Professor Augustus Allebé and Professor Carel L. Dake. In the evening during the next few years, Graafland taught at an art school in Amsterdam founded by a college friend of his, Gerrit Willem Knap, whose classes were very popular.

On 26 September 1898, Rob Graafland applied for a position at the Stadsteekeninstituut in Maastricht which had been founded a few months before and which provided a training course for young artisans. Graafland was accepted on 7 November and he subsequently settled down in Maastricht. There were five other teachers at the institute, amongst them the sculptor Frans van de Laar from Sittard (not far from Maastricht). The school started on 1 December 1898 in the former Augustijnenkerk (Church) with 159 pupils who were at least twelve years old. Graafland introduced something new in his teachings; not only the usefulness was important but also the beauty. The director of the Stadsteekeninstituut was Jacobus van Gils from Rotterdam who was succeeded by Anton van de Sandt in 1902. Around that time, Maastricht was a small village with a population of 34,000 and cultural life was limited to just a handful of artists.

Graafland set up his first painting studio in 1900. As a result of his academic training he was predominantly painting in Rembrandt-brown colours during the next few years. Yet, among his early works there are some paintings that show his future direction, like 'Picnic and Red Car' (Picknick bij rode auto 1902), 'Arabian Man' ('Morenfiguur' 1902), and 'Maria' (1903), all colourful pictures. Graafland disliked still lifes, flower arrangements and religious subjects. Still lifes he never painted, flower arrangements very occasionally like a blue vase with poppy flowers, and religious paintings almost never, despite illustrating religious school books all his life for Brother Cyprianus from a monastery in Maastricht.

Graafland's art was not influenced by political and social developments, he did not express his opinions in his paintings. But he did draw a then famous coloured postcard with the caption "Support The Government Before It Is Too Late", which was sold by bookshops all over the Netherlands when the politician Troelstra called the revolution in November 1918 and Belgium laid claim to Dutch-Limburg (southern Dutch province). Several other political illustrations survived.

Jean van der Voort wrote about Graafland in Art in Limburg (Kunst in Limburg 1919 / 1920): "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 chose indeed sometimes the theme of a poem to express it on canvas. Van der Voort: "'Young Love' ('Jonge liefde' 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 for them,
He bent over, whisp'ring, towards her,
To the little head beside him, red of a rosy glow..."

Poetry and music had a great influence on Graafland's life. His favourite subject 'Going Through Life Together' ('Levensgang') was derived from the oratorio the Schöpfung by Joseph Haydn. It was thanks to listening to the Schöpfung that Graafland started painting again after a long illness. Van der 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."

Sunday Painting School

Graafland turned out to be an inspired teacher. One of his pupils, the writer Mathias Kemp, wrote in the local newspaper Limburgs Dagblad on 2 November 1956: "His great ability and pedagogic skills earned him quickly high esteem." Graafland's teaching was not limited to drawing and painting only, he also educated his pupils about music and literature. It was thanks to these lessons that Pierre and Mathias Kemp got acquainted with the work of the Belgian poet Guido Gezelle which would stimulate their literary career a great deal. Pierre Kemp remembers in his Prose (Proza 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 scale. A. Gorissen wrote in Mathias Kemp, A Life for Limburg (Mathias Kemp, een leven voor Limburg 1991) about the Stadsteekeninstituut: "Graafland was very good at schooling his pupils morally and intellectually. During his lessons he did not only spend time on drawing and painting art but also on music and literature. And he was a freethinker who did not refrain from explaining his modern ideas to some of his pupils." Although Graafland was raised in the Christian faith, as an adult he turned to some extent away from Christianity and his anti-clerical attitude could not be denied. According to Mathias Kemp he was an agnostic.

In 1901, Rob Graafland founded the Sunday Painting School for Decorative Art (Zondagsschilderschool voor Decoratieve Kunsten) in cooperation with the Stadsteekeninstituut. Graafland had made a start with this in 1899 all by himself, and fifteen pupils had signed up for his class who were willing to pay f 0.25 per lesson. In November 1899, therefore, Graafland proposed the foundation of this Sunday Painting School for talented pupils of the Stadsteekeninstituut. His proposals were discussed by the Committee on 30 November 1899 but they 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 the expenses (apparently this was not an issue for Graafland). The Committee also disapproved of a course which would be a risk to the teacher without an existing official relationship with the Committee. The Stadsteekeninstituut itself was not yet ready to organise a Sunday Painting School, since high ranking officials had decided that such a course was not yet desirable for the time being. But in 1901 Graafland's proposals became reality. At the meeting of 26 November 1901, the Committee founded a painting course commencing January 1902 on Sunday morning from 9am to 12 noon. Graafland was appointed teacher, teaching drawing and painting skills, and the venue would be in the ... of Graafland (hard to make out in the minutes). The official name would be the Sunday Painting School for Decorative Art (Zondagsschilderschool voor Decoratieve Kunsten).

Graafland's intuition moulded by his experiences as a teacher at the evening classes in Amsterdam and at the Stadsteekeninstituut enabled him to choose the most talented pupils for this Sunday Painting School. To name but a few: Edmond Bellefroid, Alphons Boosten, Pie Coenen, Jean Grégoire, Charles Hollman, Mathias Hul, Henri Jonas, Pierre en Mathias Kemp, Victor Marres, Joep Narinx, Joep Nicolas, Jan en Jos Postmes, Vic Reinders, Willy Schoonhoven van Beurden and Fons Volders. They were known as 'The Graafland Class'. Apart from the aforementioned unknown venue, the Class also painted in the Augustijnenkerk (Church) in Maastricht and in summer in the countryside 'en plein air', like John Constable. As from 1911, the lessons were to take place in the Italian garden of Graafland's house at St Pieter nearby Maastricht.

Dr. Monique Dickhaut described Graafland in Meeting Rob Graafland (Onmoeting met Rob Graafland 2010) as an enthusiastic teacher at the Sunday Painting School, who did not only taught the technical and artistic features of drawing and painting art but got his pupils also acquainted with art and culture in every sense of the word which, as she added, must have been a revelation to these young people most of whom were from working-class families.

A. Gorissen wrote in Mathias Kemp, A Life for Limburg (Mathias Kemp, een leven voor Limburg 1991) that Graafland was an inspiration to his pupils, that he made them feel confident and that he encouraged them to achieve as much as their talent allowed them to.

Mathias Kemp's memories of his experiences with 'The Graafland Class' are similar as outlined by dr. Monique Dickhaut and A. Gorissen. Graafland was a talented man who made his pupils aware of their talents, charming, with sophisticated beliefs and views, a moderate freethinker, who embraced other art forms, like literature, and who started a School in Maastricht. It was apparently not easy for Mathias Kemp to deal with Graafland, because in 1956 he remembered Graafland as (A. Gorissen) "A fascinating, sometimes charming personality who attracted more admiration than affinity ... Although sometimes he could behave very differently indeed ... But this did not mean that his great talents as a teacher were not fully displayed ... He knew how to inspire his pupils ... After all, he himself was a brilliant painter ... When he examined our work, he always found something to improve with a brush stroke or a powerful touch."


On 19 August 1902 Rob Graafland married Maria Duquesne, daughter of Tilman en Maria Diederiks. Maria grew up at her parent's estate in Heer (nearby Maastricht), but when she was seven years old her parents died in a tragic accident. Charles Graafland described his mother as a sweet, sensible and handsome lady who courageously managed to cope with her husband's depressions later in life, it was a happy marriage. A number of portraits, painted in warm and tender colours, confirms his words. Maria was a hospitable lady, coffee, cake and drink were always ready for visiting friends and pupils. The couple temporarily moved to Amby, on the outskirts of Maastricht. Their honeymoon took them to Italy where they travelled for quite some time. Italy's art, architecture and climate overwhelmed Graafland and especially Venice made a huge impresion on him, they would be the inspiration for his colourful paintings between 1909 and 1919. When they settled down in St Pieter, a hamlet nearby Maastricht, nine years later, Graafland would create a beautiful terraced Italian garden. Upon their arrival in Maastricht Villa Aldegonda was built, a large detached villa designed by Graafland himself. Here he devoted himself to his art, spending most of his time in the studio developing his own style. On 29 December 1903 their daughter, Suzanne, was born.

Visit to America

In 1905 Graafland visited the USA. For how long we do not know, but it must have been five or six months. Three postcards to Wilhemina Jelinger in Maastricht, sister of the painter Han Jelinger, are respectively dated New York 4 June 1905, New York 19 June 1905 and New York 6 July 1905. Why did Graafland visit America? Nobody knows. Graafland himself never explained his reasons. Mrs Yvonne Graafland-Marres, Rob Graafland's daughter-in-law, said in an article by Ieneke Suidman in the art magazine 'Work of Art' ('Kunstwerk' 1992): "His motivation was a mystery to all of us", meaning that they did not understand why Graafland was visiting America instead of travelling across Europe or visiting Paris. It must have been a sense of adventure focussed on America, combined with a strong artistic curiosity to meet American painters and to find out about their artistic development, that made Graafland undertake such a very long journey. It was unusual, because other Dutch painters like the School of The Hague (Haagsche School) chose Paris for their artistic focal point.

Little is known of Graafland's travels across the USA. All we know is that he painted with American fellow painters 'en plein air' on Staten Island (New York), that he painted a cityscape of New York, and that he paid a visit to the painter Hubert Vos on Long Island who lived in the USA and who was an uncle of the sculptor Charles Vos in Maastricht. This must have been in March 1905 or even earlier, for on 5 June 1905 Hubert Vos arrived at the palace in Beijing after a two-month journey to paint two portraits of the Chinese empress dowager Cixi, and he returned to New York early 1906. Graafland managed to get many commissions during his travels. He also visited a tribe of native Americans who, upon his arrival, threatened to kill him. Only by making a quick pencil drawing on paper of the proud and magnificently dressed up chief in front of the tribe, did they leave him in peace and even treated him kindly. After safely arriving in Maastricht, Graafland was delighted to be home again as he wrote to the famous art critic Plasschaert.

Graafland as Illustrator

A son, Charles, was born in Villa Aldegonda on 27 January 1906. Due to financial problems Graafland was forced to sell the house, and late 1907 the family moved to Wandre in Belgium, a hamlet sixteen kilometers from Maastricht. During the next few years Graafland focussed mainly on his commissions, especially the American commissions which were shipped from Belgium to America. And every day he travelled to Maastricht by train to carry on teaching at the Stadsteekeninstituut. He also continued his lessons at the Sunday Painting School 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, where he met Brother Cyprianus who dedicated himself to education and whose educational and religious books for schoolchildren were read by pupils all over the Netherlands. Graafland was asked to illustrate these books and he did so all his life, even when he was seriously ill. His illustrations were very popular, they ignited children's inspiration and curiosity and they set an example for their behaviour and attitude. Mathias Kemp, writer and pupil of 'The Graafland Class', called Graafland the first among the best illustrators of Catholic youth literature. In addition, Graafland illustrated kindergarten books, reading books for schools, novels for youngsters, newspapers and weekly and monthly magazins. His wife Maria, his two children Suzanne en Charles, Suzanne's friend Adriënne van de Boorn, and Marieke and Frans Ceulen who lived next door were often models for these illustrations. Sadly enough, a large number of these illustrations and paintings were destroyed during a bombardment on 's Hertogenbosch in the Second World War.

One of the novels of Albertine Steenhoff-Smulders illustrated by Graafland was 'Child of 1813' ('Kind van 1813') - 1813 being the year of the Prince of Orange's arrival in Holland ('Een Kind van 1813'). The photo below the front cover of 'Child of 1813' shows Rob Graafland, three friends and his two children posing for the backdrop of the illustration on the front cover. The other three photos show the children and friends posing as characters for 'Child of 1813'. Fancy dress parties for Graafland's illustrations were common as they enabled him to make sketches on paper. Graafland was extremely successful with his illustrations and he was so much in demand that he asked Edmond Bellefroid, a pupil of 'The Graafland Class', to assist him.

Graafland's Italian Garden

On 21 March 1911, the Graafland family moved from Wandre to a large rented house in St Pieter, a hamlet nearby Maastricht. The next eight years would be the happiest of Graafland's life and his creativity would reach its peak. He abandoned the Rembrandt-brown colours in which he had predominantly been painting - many paintings of the past years he destroyed - and he developed a style of his own, a romantic impressionism: sparkling, colourful, romantic compositions expressing the beauty of life which makes people happy and which they instinctively long for. Graafland's art embraces sun and light, joy of life and happiness. He was a true romantic - he expressed his feelings in his work - a devoted impressionist, a colorist whose compositions are dreamy and idyllic. His choice of colours is rich and brilliant, they reveal his passion for luminous colours, and some of his paintings resemble Italian impressionists. Hans Redeker wrote in the newspaper NRC Handelsblad of 19 September 1975 after visiting a Rob Graafland exhibition in Cultureel Centrum in Venlo: "This exhibition makes it abundantly clear that, from Graafland's work in those years, one could select a small number of masterpieces which are absolutely unique in Dutch art at the time, or even in European art."

In those days, St Pieter was surrounded by lonely fields stretching as far as the gentle slopes of the St Pietersberg (mountain). At the back of his large house Graafland had, according to his own design, an extensive Italian garden built with terraces on different levels. Two life-size squatting white stone lions on columns, sculptured by his friend the sculptor Frans van de Laar, gave access to the garden. A path meandered between trees, colourful flowerbeds, sculptures, Greek vases and elegantly wrought iron benches. There were also a few fountains, the largest of which decorated with sculptures by Frans van de Laar. And in the center of the terrace at the lowest level, a large pond was guarded by four life-size squatting white stone lions on columns. Many a party was thrown in this garden, like the gondola parties, where everyone was floating in gondolas of Venetian design, lauhing and singing. This Italian garden is a recurrent subject in many of Graafland's paintings between 1911 and 1919. As from 1911, the lessons of the Sunday Painting School were taking place in this garden. Graafland himself was painting day and night. His son Charles revealed in his notes how Graafland completed an unfinished painting. It often took him one day to finish a painting, but it could also take months or even years. His favourite way for finishing off a painting was to get up at three in the morning, put the painting on the easel in his studio and work very hard; at sunrise the painting was finished.

Frits Goovaerts, son of the painter Henri Goovaerts, wrote to Suzanne, Graafland's daughter, about the Italian garden on 22 November 1962: "I often 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 I cherish the memory of your garden. The dreamlike peace of a late summer day, when apples floated in the fountain, while the white lions gazed serenely into the distance, meditatingly, and the drone of a harvest cart returning from the fields could be heard across the mayor's shed. It was so delightfully quiet without the noise of planes and mopeds. And how could we know how unsavoury the world can be? It only lasted for a short time, but it was a very beautiful time."

Bennie Ceulen, grandson of Léon Ceulen, the last mayor of St Pieter and Rob Graafland's next door neighbour, expressed his feelings about the Italian garden in an email to the writer of this biography: "... and [I] have been a great admirer of your grandfather Robert Graafland ever since I was small. This has to do with the enthusiastic stories of my father Frans Ceulen who told me about the painter Robert Graafland and his beautiful Italian garden. When my father and his sister Marieke were children, they were often models for your grandfather's illustrations. That's why. Not only did he tell me about your grandmother, but also about your father Charles and your aunt Suze whom he knew very well, both of them used to walk in and out of my grandfather's farm as often as they liked ... Your grandfather spent his most productive years as a painter in this magnificent house."

Charles Graafland referred to the Italian garden in a speech at a dinner for his sister on 28 December 1963: "In the middle of a round pond were sculptures, and four enormous sculptured stone lions, life-size, surrounded the pond, proud and forbidding like merciless guards. The water bounced off sunrays and it seemed to turn into millions of sparkling jewels ... In the distance I could hear the bass voice of Joseph Joosten singing, accompanied by piano and guitar ... the pupils of the Academy walked through the iron gate into the garden to paint you under a tree ... I walked out of the house and just a few yards away I stopped in my tracks, stunned. In front of me Napoleon sat on a colossal horse, his hand in his waistcoat as he used to do, and next to him stood a little girl wearing a long yellow dress with a lot of lace and a large hat on her head; golden curly hair covered her shoulders. She looked sweet but scared. Then I recognised you, Suze. I turned my head the opposite way and saw why you were scared; a group of farmers carrying lances, pitchforks and scythes were running towards us shouting 'Revolution'.
'Suze', I said, 'what's the meaning of all this?'
'Quiet', you said, 'we are playing Child of 1813. Daddy is drawing on the balcony.'
I looked up and you were right, daddy was making sketches on several sheets of paper to capture the scenes as fast as possible."

Other artists joined Graafland, like the painters Jules Brouwers, Guillaume Eberhard, Henri Goovaerts, Herman Gouwe, Chris Hammes, Charles Hollman (who also played the cello), Han Jelinger en Willem van Konijnenburg; de sculptor Frans van de Laar, de writer Fons Olterdissen, the painter and photographer Herman Bopp; the conductor of the Maastricht City Orchestra (Maastrichter Stedelijk Orkest), Henri Hermans; and the opera singer Joseph Joosten, baritone, singer of the operas in Lyon, Dijon, Antwerp and Liège. Graafland's house at St Pieter became a meeting place for artists and pupils. On weekday evenings and Sundays after morning class, passionate discussions took place about art, Maastricht and anything else that took their fancy, and very popular were the music events in the evenings. The harmonium was then carried out of the house and placed under an apple tree, and surrounded by delighted friends and pupils Joseph Joosten sang an aria from Faust accompanied by Henri Hermans on harmonium, Charles Hollman played his cello, and Graafland, a tenor with a pleasant voice, performed songs from the Schöpfung by Haydn and recited poems by Schubert. Graafland loved music. A pianola used to play non-stop while painting and every week new rolls of classical componists were delivered; Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky and especially Haydn were his favourites. Apart from meeting at Graafland's house there were two other popular meeting places: at Henri Jonas's studio also on Sunday evenings, and at Café Suisse on the Vrijthof [Square] in Maastricht where they were nicknamed 'The Gang of Suisse'.

Herman Gouwe, from Alkmaar, remembered in his unpublished autobiography when he visited Limburg for the first time. This occurred during his holiday at the Academy in Amsterdam when he was working as a student in Gulpen. Several years later he returned to Gulpen and visited Graafland in Maastricht, a contemporary and fellow student at the Academy, who introduced him to his friends in Café Suisse. In spring 1911, Gouwe stayed with the Graafland family for a while as arranged in advance, and as from then on he was living with the Graafland family during the summer months on and off, the house became his pied-à-terre. Charles Graafland wrote in his notes that Gouwe used to post his luggage in advance, just a tiny parcel containing comb, toothbrush and toothpaste. At the outbreak of the First World War, 28 July 1914, Gouwe lived in Eben-Emael, Belgium, and when the borders were closed, Rob and Maria invited him to stay at their place for a few days while he was looking for a place to live. These 'few days' turned into one and a halve years, enjoying their hospitality until February or March 1916. For in March 1916 he set off with the steamship Tubantia via London to Portugal where he never arrived. On the night of 15 March 1916 the ship was torpedoed in the English Channel. In the early morning, the survivors were picked up by boats and brought home. Many years later Charles recounted how during the First World War he, his father and Gouwe, the three of them, were watching the bombardments in Belgium from a hill nearby Maastricht. Gouwe wrote about Rob Graafland in his unpublished autobiography: "He lived in a big and beautiful house at St Pieter near Maastricht. He was very popular and his character was light-heartedly philosophical en his paintings were full of joy." Gouwe settled down in Tahiti in 1927, and when he visited the Netherlands in 1959 for the first and last time he wrote in his unpublished autobiography about his meeting with Mrs Suzanne Twaalfhoven-Graafland: "I had known Mrs Twaalfhoven as a child, she was the daughter of my friend and colleague Graafland in Maastricht where I used to have my pied-à-terre when I was visiting Limburg in summer." And: "There was a large painting on the wall, 'Ploughing Horses' [in Twaalfhoven-Graafland's house], which I had made for my friend Graafland a long time ago." This painting was a thank-you for Graafland's one and a halve years of hospitality. Suzanne Graafland and Herman Gouwe exchanged letters until his death in 1965, and Gouwe regularly sent her crates of paintings from Tahiti with which she organised exhibitions on his behalf.


Rob and Maria had a happy marriage and they raised their childen well, they did a lot for them, although spending power had to be kept in check. Suzanne and Charles enjoyed a very pleasant childhood, they remembered it as an idyllic period of their lives. It was as if the large terraced-garden with stone lions, sculptures and fountains, the steep stairs down to the lowest terrace where Italian gondolas were floating in a large round pond surrounded by four life-size squatting white stone lions on columns, were escaped from a fairy-tale. And Rob was a kind and cheerful father. For their pleasure, he had a small wooden house built in his Italian garden where the children could play with their pals and where they had 'great fun', as Charles wrote in his notes, and especially when it was raining. Their next door neighbour, Léon Ceulen, the last mayor of St Pieter, lived with his family on the farm De Winhof where Suzanne and Charles were having a great time with Marieke en Frans who were the same age. When Graafland was illustrating children books, he often organised fancy dress parties so that he could make sketches on paper while his models were acting out a scene, and Suzanne and Charles loved acting and dressing up. In the weeks leading up to Sinterklaas - 5 December (Santa Claus's progenitor) - Rob and Maria used to surprise them with plenty of amusing events. Graafland exchanged paintings for boxes of wine and rifles, and Charles, as young as he was, owned a large collection of rifles, among which an elephant rifle (all confiscated by the Germans in 1940). He and his friends were allowed to shoot in a corner of the Italian garden at targets placed in front of a fence. Suzanne was posing on and off with or without a girlfriend for the Sunday Painting School and the students occasionally presented her with a box of chocolates. Her brother felt a bit let down, but fortunately he too was occasionally asked to pose and for each time he received one cent (for three cents he could buy a small bar of chocolate). Snip, the dog, accompanied Suzanne and Charles every day to Maastricht, dropped them off at school, picked up the newspaper at a shop and trotted cheerfully home with the newspaper between his teeth clenched. And on 18 September 1919, Suzanne and Charles were allowed to fly with the French pilot Duchereux on his plane, the double wings of which were attached to each other by metal rods. The children had to climb a tall ladder, and after squeezing themselves into the cramped open cockpit Duchereux treated them to a fifteen-minute flight over Maastricht and surroundings, to the utter delight of Suzanne and Charles who, after landing, were shrieking with excitement. Forty years later, Charles was still glowing with excitement when he told his children about this adventure. In short, these were precious years for the Graafland family, full of joy and happiness.


The first time Rob Graafland took part in an exhibition happened on 29 October 1908 in the Larensche Art Gallery in Amsterdam. The reason for this choice was that he no longer wanted to confine himself to Maastricht. In 1911, he wrote to the famous art critic Albert Plasschaert that he had been isolated in the south for ten years and: "I destroyed all my paintings until I had to take part in exhibitions, which is about two years ago." But he did sell paintings at his studios. The painting 'Le cygne méchant', exhibited in the Larensche Art Gallery in 1908, made such a favourable impression on the committee of Sint-Lucas Art Society in Amsterdam that Graafland was invited to become a member in 1909.

Between April 1909 and January 1916, Graafland took part in seven exhibitions with Sint-Lucas in the City Museum (Stedelijk Museum) in Amsterdam. Among the many co-exhibitors were Herman Gouwe, Ferdinand Hart Nibbrig, Piet Mondriaan, Martin Monnickendam and Jan Sluyters. At the exhibition of 30 April-11 June 1911 the reviews of Graafland's work were full of praise, especially for the small painting 'Red Car' ('Rode auto'). The dazzling colours reminded an unknown newspaper as well as the newspaper De Telegraaf of Monticelli. It was remarkable in itself that the subject was a car (the year of the first car in the Netherlands was 1896). During these seven years Graafland introduced a few of his pupils to Sint-Lucas. One of them, Henri Jonas, arguably Graafland's most talented pupil, attracted at the exhibition of December 1915-Januari 1916 much attention with his huge painting 'Trajectum ad Mosam'. Afterwards, Jonas gave this work as a present to Graafland as a thank-you for everything Graafland had done for him and without whose teaching he would not have existed as a painter, as he admitted himself.

In those days it was a serious problem sending paintings to the north. It was a very long way from Maastricht to Amsterdam and there were few modes of transport available. Graafland's solution was to pack his paintings in huge crates and have them shipped to Amsterdam by N.V. Janssenbooten (boats).

Art Society of Limburg Province

The Art Society of Limburg Province (Limburgsche Kunstkring) was founded by Graafland and it is very likely that Sint-Lucas was his inspiration; a small circle of friends who organised exhibitions in order to sell their paintings. Over the years it grew into a social center for artists who inspired each other, represented Limburg in the north and taught talented youngsters, solidifying the budding artistry in Maastricht. It was established in 1910 by Jan Bakhoven, Guillaume Eberhard, Rob Graafland, Henri Jonas, Johannes van der Kooij, Jos Narinx and Vic Reinders. Herman Gouwe joined in 1911, according to his unpublished autobiography. The first exhibition took place on 20 February 1910 in Maastricht. Approximately two hundred paintings and sculptures by nine members of the Art Society were exhibited. Graafland brought about fifty paintings as well as pen drawings and one watercolour. His brilliant colours and romantic subjects, like 'Picnic' and 'Japanese Parasol' ('Japanse parasol'), caught everyone's attention.

Two Awards

In 1912, Graafland was invited to take part in the Exposition Internationale Musée Municipale in the City Museum (Stedelijk Museum) in Amsterdam. It was a very large exhibition with oil paintings from the Netherlands and 16 other countries, running from from 13 April to July. For his painting 'Girl Reading'" ('Lezend meisje') - a girl in white lying on a yellow sofa cover - he won the bronze medal (bronzen medaille) of the City of Amsterdam. Soon afterwards postcards of this painting were sold by bookshops all over the Netherlands. Among the Dutch artists of oil paintings were professor C. L. Dake (Graafland's teacher at the Royal Academy of Art in Amsterdam), Ferdinand Hart Nibbrig, Isaac Israels, J. H. Jurres, H. W. Mesdag, Martin Monnickendam and Jan Sluyters. Intrigued by Graafland's work, professor C. L. Dake and two lecturers at the Royal Academy, P. H. van Moerkerken and J. H. Jurrus, travelled to Maastricht to get acquainted with the development of the visual arts in Limburg. A warm welcome awaited them at Graafland's house.

Graafland received his second award in September 1916. Invited in June 1916 to take part in the exhibition of the Art Society of 's-Hertogenbosch ('s-Hertogenbosche Kunstkring) two months later, he won the Gold Medal for his paintings 'Joy of Life' ('Levensvreugde') and 'Girls in the Sun '" ('Meisjes in de zon'). 'Joy of Life' was given a place of honour at the exhibition because of the attractive originality and charming richness of colours. Dolf van Engelen, the secretary of the Art Society of 's-Hertogenbosch, wired Graafland to congratulate him with the award on 1 September, whereupon the news spread like wildfire. The same evening a large crowd of admirers gathered outside Graafland's house, and the brass bands of Maastricht and St Pieter serenaded him in his garden. Many years later Charles, Graafland's son, remembered fondly how admirers and brass bands were invited for a few drinks to celebrate this memorable occasion and how he, Charles, eleven years old, was allowed the following morning to collect all the empty bottles in house and garden, hand them in at the shops and keep the deposit money.

Setbacks and Depressions

Robert Graafland had now reached the top of his career. As a teacher, he had educated talented pupils and introduced some of them at Sint-Lucas in Amsterdam where they had taken part in exhibitions. As an artist, his paintings had made him famous in Limburg and Holland. And his was a happy marriage and he enjoyed being a father. All his life he had dedicated himself to his art and pupils, his enthusiasm and energy seemed boundless, but then, suddenly and unexpectedly, this happy time came to an abrupt end.

Graafland faced a financial crisis. Before 1914 he had bought a valuable life insurance policy in the German Empire, as one used to do in those days. Germany's collapse at the end of the First World War made this investment worthless. Another investment in Maastricht also failed. And at the same time Graafland started suffering from ill health. The first symptoms of a depression took hold of him and undermined his creativity. These depressions occurred more and more often. There were days that he was too ill to work and those days turned into weeks, months, years. Slowly but inescapably Graafland became seriously ill. At the same time important cultural changes took place in Maastricht. 'The Graafland Class' had grown up and his pupils were going their own way, which Graafland had always encouraged. Some pupils and some friends of the Art Society of Limburg Province (Limburgsche Kunstkring) left Maastricht for other places. During 1914-1918 the Stadsteekeninstituut had fallen into disarray. German and Belgian soldiers were being nursed in the Augustijnenkerk (church) and there were no more empty rooms available for teaching. And another art school for children of working-class families in Maastricht had gained more popularity. On 4 September 1918 Graafland applied for sick leave which was granted on 17 September by the Council; the Sunday Painting School (Zondagsschilderschool) in his Italian garden ceased to exist. A year later, on 22 September 1919, after an examination by the Pension Committee, he was given honourable dismissal and a pension. Graafland was forty-three years old when he retired from the Stadsteekeninstituut.

Two years later Graafland faced another crisis. His rented house was property of Guillaume Ceulen, Léon Ceulen's brother, Graafland's next door neighbour. When Guillaume's wife died at a young age, he sold his farm in Belgium and decided to move back to St Pieter. Graafland, therefore, was forced to look for another place to live. On 29 August 1922, the Graafland family moved from St Pieter to Maastricht, next to the concert hall. This time Graafland did not set up a painting studio; his palette, easel and art supplies were not touched. From his study he had a view of the Hendrik van Veldekeplein (square), the St. Janskerk (church) with its Gothic tower and the portal to the St. Servaaskerk (church). There was no garden. His house was full of paintings by himself and his pupils, silent witnesses of his creative period.

Graafland's illness brought his creativity to a standstill which would last until 1934. Although he consulted several doctors, none of them could help him, his condition could not be resolved by medical science in those days. And as the years went by, his depressions even intensified.

Other Activities

In 1920 he became a deputy member of the Heritage Commission Maastricht (Schoonheidscommissie Maastricht). He often published his opinions in newspapers.

Although Graafland could no longer paint, he refused to accept the status quo and forced himself to get a position as a drawing teacher at a school for domestic science. He taught decorative drawing; he made drawings to help children learn the French language visually; he created patterns for cushions, gobelins, hand knotted rugs, tapestries; and he created designs for advertising purposes and for applied arts like windows and coats of arms.

And more than ever before he was illustrating schildren's books and weekly and monthly magazins.

He also joined a few exhibitions.

In 1920 he was invited by the society Netherlands Abroad (Nederland in den Vreemde) for an exhibition in Brighton, Blackpool, Bradford, Sunderland and London. Graafland did not travel to England, instead he sent 'Young Love' ('Jonge liefde') and 'Joy of Life' ('Levensvreugde').

From 27 December 1920 to 7 January 1921 he took part in an exhibition of the Art Society of Limburg Province (Limburgsche Kunstkring) in Maastricht.

And in December 1922 he was invited by the Art Society of 's-Hertogenbosch ('s Hertogenbosche Kunstkring) for a large exhibition; 160 works of art represented the visual arts of the provinces Brabant and Limburg. This was Graafland's last exhibition until July 1935.

Emergency and Recovery

By the end of September 1933 Graafland's depressions worsened so much that he shot himself in the head. After treatment of his injury in a hospital in Apeldoorn he was admitted on 30 September to the Psychiatric Hospital Voorburg in Vught for observation. Graafland survived the crisis but lost his right eye. The Graafland family moved from Maastricht to Vught. A short time later, to everyone's astonishment, he had made a full recovery; after an illness of fourteen years he could paint again. He actually recovered so fast that he published an article in the local paper on 18 December 1933 regarding expansion plans by Maastricht Council, and a follow-up on 4 January 1934. But he was no longer the man he used to be, as he wrote to the famous art critic Plasschaert on 7 September 1935. Outwardly, he was in good shape, but inwardly his illness had devastated him. And due to the loss of his right eye he had lost depth perception. As of now, Graafland focussed on painting portraits, and he was in great demand, but there were also many other subjects he was interested in, like brides, children, mother and child, nudes, dancing-girls and horse riders.

Graafland was now sixty years old.

During the next years he took part in a number of exhibitions. The first one since 1922 was in July 1935, a large exhibition to celebrate the foundation of the city of 's Hertogenbosch 750 years ago. He brought two paintings: 'Horseback Rider' ('Portret van een ruiter') and 'Source of Life' ('Levensbron').

In 1936 he won the bronze medal (bronzen medaille) at the Summer Olympics (Olympiad) in Berlin for his portrait of the Dutch horse rider Charles Pahud de Mortanges on his horse Mädel Wie Du.

He held three exhibitions of his own.

At the first exhibition, in The Hague in February 1936, there were forty-six works: drawings, etchings, watercolours and oil paintings. The art critic J. R., reviewing the exhibition for an unknown newspaper, wrote on 8 February that he admired the fiery red hunting outfit of a member of a hunting association, and "... the paintings are nothing but praise for life, witnesses of the beauty of the world ..." But there was also some criticism of his allegorical and symbolical paintings.

The second exhibition of his own took place in 's Hertogenbosch in January 1937. One of the paintings was a portrait of Her Majesty Queen Wilhelmina (using photos), which was commissioned by Mr van Beuningen who gifted it to the town hall in Vught. The exhibition was such a succes that it was extended.

The next year, 1938, the Graafland family moved from Vught to The Hague, Graafland wanted to be part of life again. One of the paintings he created was 'Dying Swan', a triptych, inspired by Tchaikovsky's ballet 'Swan Lake'. Sadly enough, a large number of the paintings created in The Hague were destroyed during the British bombardment of the Bezuidenhoutkwartier on 3 March 1945, the target of which was the launch pad of a V2 in the Haagsche bos (wood).

The third and last exhibition of his own ran at N.V. H. Alard fils & Co in Maastricht from 9 april to 15 april and 20 april to 25 april 1938.

A year later, 1939, Graafland returned to his former house in Vught, escaping the hustle and bustle of The Hague. One of the works he painted in Vught was a portrait of his friend Hubert Cuypers, composer, conductor and organist.

And his final exhibition was in 1939 with the Art Society of Breda (Bredasche Kunstkring) of which he was a member.

In Memoriam Robert Graafland

In 1940 Graafland started suffering from a destructive illness and the diagnosis was cancer. He rapidly grew weaker and weaker. Before long, he lost most of his physical strength and could no longer stretch the canvasses for his paintings, yet he did not give up painting. Hendrik de Laat from 's Hertogenbosch, friend and assistant, stretched the canvasses for him during the last weeks of his life. Graafland's final painting was 'Standing Bride' ('Staande bruid'), a young woman with a bouquet of flowers in her folded hands; he could not finish it off. As he was in a critical condition, he was taken to the St Joseph Hospital in Heerlen where a friend operated on him, the surgeon E. Husting from Heerlen. Despite his efforts, Graafland died on the operation table in the morning of Sunday 28 April 1940. The funeral took place on 1 May, attended by a small circle of family, friends, acquaintances and fellow artists. Mr Ernest van Aelst, chairman of the Art Society of Limburg Province (Limburgse Kunstkring), paid his last respects on behalf of the Society and spoke of Graaflands dedication to the art of Limburg. The composer Hubert Cuypers honoured the memory of his life-long friend with well-chosen words whom he had known since their student years in Amsterdam. Charles Graafland, the son, thanked the attendees for their presence and condolences. Vic Reinders, a pupil of 'The Graafland class', wrote a poem, the sculptor Charles Vos designed the grave, and Maastricht honoured Graafland by naming a street after him, the Robert Graaflandlaan.

In springtime light they take him to his grave,
him, who worshipped the light passionately,
who, every year, as happy as a child,
was waiting for the white blossoms to uncoil.

Scatter on his gravestone white and red roses,
and purple and violet flowers;
may greenery with dewdrops adorn his resting place
of him, who chose light and colour as his master.

And remember: death only took the body, that waned,
his mind gave dead matter shining life,
the beauty, which he created, stays with us;
Let's be grateful: praying for his soul.
Vic Reinders

Mathias Kemp, a pupil of 'The Graafland Class', published his article "In Memoriam Robert Graafland" in the local newspaper of 4 May 1940 in which he highlighted Graafland's many talents:
- As painter
- As teacher and educationalist
- As ornamental design artist
- As illustrator for Catholic children's books
- As organiser of the art in Limburg. "... Graafland can be considered the founder of the Art Society of Limburg Province (Limburgsche Kunstkring). For a long time he was the inspiring leader and the dominating figure at the Art Society's exhibitions. His influence was great, not only with his pupils."

And in the catalogue for the Rob Graafland retrospective in the Bonnefantenmuseum in Maastricht in 1956, Mathias Kemp wrote: "He is one of the first artists of Limburg the spoiled north gets acquainted with and he is welcomed as 'painter of sunlight'."

Graafland's Motivation for his Art

Robert Graafland explained his motivation for his art at two exhibitions.

At the exhibition of his own in 's-Hertogenbosch in January 1937, after thanking the mayor of 's-Hertogenbosch, baron F. van Lanschot, for his opening speech and the mayor of Vught, mr. H. Loeff, for his friendly comments, he added:
"If my work has contributed to and increased 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 exhibition in Maastricht in 1938, in honour of the 40th anniversary of Her Majesty Queen Wilhelmina's reign, Graafland kept it short:
"My efforts will be rewarded if my work has contributed to and increased people's happiness."

And on 1 October 1938, Rob Graafland wrote to his close friend and colleague Charles Hollman: "... Fortunately, your romantic nature is still present in your work; for, of course, in these rational, businesslike times we really need a bit of romance. It is obvious that changing circumstances will influence artists, but it is a fact that, the more businesslike and rational life becomes, people's desire for romance will grow. After all, romance is an essential part of life."

Copyright © Fr Graafland 2023