van Essche, Maurice

Antwerp, Belgium, 1906

Thonon, Lake Geneva, France, 1977 (lived in South Africa 1940–1971)

1924: Brussels Academy of Fine Art, under James Ensor. 1925-1926: Worked in a stained glass studio and as a wallpaper designer. 1933: Studied under Henri Matisse at Cimiez in S. France and also in Paris.

1927: First solo exhibition, Brussels. 1948: South African Art, Tate Gallery, London. 1956: First Quadrennial Exhibition of South African Art.
1974: Retrospective Exhibition, Iziko SA National Gallery and Pretoria Art Museum.

1951: Awarded the title of Chevalier de Leopold II by King Badouin of Belgium. 1966: Awarded Medal of Honour for Painting by the SA Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns.

Museum of Graphic Art, Brussels; Durban Art Gallery, Iziko SA National Gallery, Cape Town; Bezalel Art Gallery, Jerusalem; Johannesburg Art Gallery; Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Gallery, Port Elizabeth; Pretoria Art Museum; Galleries of the University of the Witwatersrand; William Humphreys Art Gallery, Kimberley


Carl Büchner. 1967. Van Essche. Tafelberg Publishers: Cape Town. Frontispiece.

Hans Fransen. 1982. Three Centuries of South African Art. A.D. Donker: Cape Town and Johannesburg, p. 306.

Esmé Berman. 1983. Art & Artists of South Africa. A.A. Balkema: Cape Town and Rotterdam, p. 470.

MAURICE CHARLES LOUIS VAN ESSCHE came to Africa as part of a Belgian government-sponsored painting expedition to the Congo in 1939. With the occupation of Belgium by the Germans in 1940, he then came to South Africa. After his arrival he lived briefly in Cape Town and then taught at the Wits Technical College Art School in Johannesburg from 1943 to 1945. He joined the New Group and founded the Continental School of Art in Cape Town in 1946. He was later to become a lecturer at the Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town. His influence and authority on the local art establishment was far-reaching and he bolstered the modern movement in South Africa. He brought to the local art world several aspects. Important was his authentic experience of European modernism under James Ensor (1860–1949) and Henri Matisse (1869–1954).To this was added his deep interest in African subject matter as a result of his Congo experience. He was also in the forefront of efforts to get South African art recognised abroad, and became a member of the International Art Club in 1948, this leading to his participation in the country’s artistic début at the Venice Biennale in 1950.

Filtering African subject-matter through his modernist prism, Van Essche’s work differed greatly from earlier South African portrayals of ‘native’ subjects. He had a remarkable influence on a younger generation of artists, such as Stanley Pinker (b.1924) and Erik Laubscher (b.1927) in terms of their quest to forge a South African identity in their art. It is also known that he was open to contact with emerging black artists, and that he gave George Pemba (1912–2001) mentorship and the use of his studio for several weeks in 1952.


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