KAISER, Johann Wilhelm

Johann Wilhelm Kaiser (1813-1900) was born in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, in January 1813, into a German immigrant family of nine. At the age of fourteen he went to the Royal Academy in Amsterdam where he could develop his obvious talents as a painter and an engraver. He soon focused solely on engraving and, after a stint in the artillery, he established himself as an engraver.

Kaiser became famous for his beautiful book illustrations, getting commissions to illustrate many classics of Dutch literature, which were written in his time. But Kaiser became even more famous for his engravings of masterpieces such as Rembrandt’s Night Watch. At that time, art lovers regarded engravings as the only valid reproduction method of classic paintings, and Kaiser proved to be a master at that. The engravings usually took years to complete, with his engraving of Van der Helst’s ‘Banquet of the Amsterdam Civic Guard in Celebration of the Peace of M√ľnster’ taking seven years to complete! For this kind of work, Kaiser received many accolades, such as the Order of the Netherlands Lion, one of the highest civil orders in the Netherlands, comparable to the British Order of the Bath. International acclaim followed with Kaiser being awarded the French Honour of Legion, after his work was shown at the 1865 World’s Fair in Paris. 

His fame was such that, even though Kaiser was only 38 at the time, it was no wonder that he was chosen to design and engrave the very first postage stamps that were to be issued in the Netherlands in 1852. The remit was to base the design on the existing stamps of other countries depicting their monarchs. A lifelike portrait was not a high priority, the prevention of counterfeiting was. In the end, Kaiser’s portrait of King William III was more like a medallion portrait than a lifelike illustration, and he placed that portrait in an intricate frame with patterns which should make it hard to forge the stamps. 

It took quite a while for the Dutch to warm to the idea of using postage stamps on their mail, but Kaiser’s work was appreciated enough for him to be asked again when a new set of stamps was decided on, in 1864. By that time, he had become Head of the Engraving School in Amsterdam, succeeding his erstwhile Royal Academy teacher Benoit Taurel.

The 1864 stamp issue of the Netherlands was again a portrait of King William III, but this time in a slightly less elaborate frame. 

At the same time, Kaiser was asked to provide a design and engraving for the first stamps to be issued in the Netherlands Indies. Again, he had to design a stamp which would be based on a portrait of King William III. This single stamp would also be issued in 1864.

Kaiser’s star continued to rise, and in 1870 he would become Professor at the Royal Academy for Arts, while still also being Head of the Engraving School. Like many contemporaries, Kaiser believed that artists had a moral duty to educate. Later still, Kaiser would even make it to Director of the Rijksmuseum. During his stint there, Kaiser oversaw the move to newly built premises, where the national gallery can still be found today.

But fame is a fickle thing, and contrary to contemporary belief, after his death in 1900 Kaiser did not remain the household name he used to be, and he is now mainly remembered by philatelists, for his work on the first Dutch stamps. Nowadays, the general public will only encounter his name in relation to the Dutch Nobel Prize winner Hendrik Lorentz, whose father-in-law he was. But at least Kaiser has got a street named after him in Leiden!

This article was first published in Stamp and Coin Mart of January 2013 and is reproduced with their kind permission.

STAMPS BY YEAR

1852
Netherlands, Definitives

1864
Netherlands, Definitives (except value figures)
Netherlands Indies, Definitive

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