BIOGRAPHY: Johannes Josephus Aarts

“So as not to waste any more of my precious time, I will abandon the engraving of the two Jubilee stamps with immediate effect”, a livid Professor Aarts wrote in a telegram in 1923. The Dutch stamp committee, afraid to lose such a renowned engraver, did its utmost to keep him on board.

For, renowned Johannes Josephus (Jan) Aarts was indeed. Born in The Hague, the Netherlands, on 18 August 1871, he studied at the city’s Royal Academy of Art. He followed this up with various travels to Paris, but from 1897 he became a teacher at that same Royal Academy.

Aarts’ first engravings show how he tried to move away from his work as a painter and search for tighter control of forms and decorative solutions to problems. As an intermediate step away from painting, Aarts started drawing in black and white and it is this work that made other artists suggest he should take up engraving. Wood engraving was yet another step towards the ultimate goal of copper engraving.

During this time he moved more and more towards a realistic approach, both in subject matter and style. Elementary is another word often used for his engraved art. He took the farmer, the polder boy, the fisherman, the beggars family and other lifelike figures central and even though he placed them in elementary surroundings, symbolised by the earth, a tree, or what not, it was still the figure which remained central, and as such Aarts’ work was a vital link in the development of subject matter for the 19th century engraver.

In 1910, the position of Professor of the Engraving Department at the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten (National Academy of Visual Arts) unexpectedly became vacant, and Aarts, having become by far the most famous engraver in the Netherlands, was asked to consider the position. He duly accepted and would remain a professor at the academy until his death in 1934. During those years, he would teach a good number of future stamp engravers, such as Debora Duyvis, Sem Hartz, Hubert Levigne and MrsReitsma-Valença.

In 1912, when preparations had begun on a large commemorative stamp set to mark a centenary of Dutch Independence in 1913, Aarts had almost literally forced himself on the Dutch postal authorities as being the best choice for engraving the set. At that time, he was employed by the printers Enschedé to engrave a new banknote, the ‘Labour and Welfare’ 10 guilder banknote, which would eventually be issued in 1917.

Proofs of his banknote work shown to the postal authorities did not have the desired effect, however, with his work being described as ‘not without room for improvement’. But there was really only one other engraver good enough to be considered, and in the end, the designer of the set, Mr De Bazel, was given the choice of engraver and he chose Aarts.

Aarts started in December 1912 but it took him to mid September 1913 to finish the twelve dies. This was mainly due to circumstances beyond his control, such as insufficiently prepared reference and design material and too much interference from the postal authorities. Much to Aarts’ chagrin, even lay ministerial figures thought they had to have a say in the engraving process. The original date of issue, 15 September 1913, could no longer be realised and the stamps would eventually not appear until the end of the year.

Even though the experience had not been a gratifying one, in 1923 Aarts was once again asked to engrave the next Dutch commemorative issue. The issue, marking the 25th anniversary of Queen Wilhelmina’s reign, would comprise two designs: that of Queen Wilhelmina, and a stylised design of a throned figure.

Aarts started working on the Throned Figure design first, but unbeknownst to him (and anyone else), Enschedé had asked their in-house engraver Jan Warnaar to engrave a die as well. Unfortunately for Aarts, Warnaar’s die was thought to be much superior. When Aarts was informed about all this, he nearly exploded and threatened to abandon the project altogether.

The head of the stamp committee managed to calm him down eventually, by offering a compromise solution: if Aarts could submit an improved engraving of the Throned Figure design, his would be chosen, and Warnaar would then be allowed engrave the design featuring Queen Wilhelmina.

Although this deal resulted in major friction in the stamp committee, it was honoured, and that’s how Aarts’ engraving of the Throned Figure would be used, even though in the end both engravings by Warnaar had been considered superior.

Aarts’ unaccepted engraving of the Queen Wilhelmina design, for he actually had by then made an engraving of that design as well, would find some use after all. Enschedé, not having a finished die to work with yet, would use Aarts’ engraving to create various colour proofs.

But Aarts’ rather uneasy relations with the Dutch Post didn’t end there. In 1927, when an issue to commemorate the Dutch Red Cross Society was planned, Aarts was once again asked to prepare several of the values, portraying King William III and Queen Wilhelmina. He duly submitted engraved essays, which were worked upon for a while until, rather late in the process, they were eventually rejected.

That then finally ended his dealings with the postal authorities, but at least he had the satisfaction that his pupils would shape the future of stamp engraving for years to come.

Aarts died in Amsterdam in 1934.

You will find J J Aarts' database HERE.