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', wrote a livid engraver in a telegram to the stamp committee of the Netherlands.

The fact that the authorities did their utmost to keep him on board speaks volumes for the renown of Professor Johannes Josephus Aarts, one of the foremost Dutch artists of the early 20th century.

Born in The Hague, Jan Aarts (1871-1934) studied at the city's Royal Academy of Art and, after some travels to Paris, taught there from 1897.

Starting out as a painter, he soon found himself seeking a medium with more precision and control over form and decoration, and began drawing in black and white, and later engraving. After experimenting with wood, he finally found his niche in copper engraving.

Almost single-handedly, Aarts was responsible for a revival of this art form in the Netherlands, and the development of a new genre. Elementary is a word often used for his engraved art. He portrayed the farmer, the polder boy, the fisherman, the beggars family and other lifelike figures, 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 Professor's Chair at the Engraving Department of the Royal Academy of Visual Arts in Amsterdam became vacant, and Aarts, by now the most influential engraver in the country, was offered the position. He would remain in the post until his death, teaching future stamp engravers such as Debora DuyvisSem HartzHubert Levigne and Engelina Reitsma-Valença.

When preparations began for a large set of commemorative stamps to mark the centenary of the nation's independence in 1913, Aarts imposed himself on the Dutch postal authorities as being the best choice for engraving them.

At that time, he was being employed by the printer Enschedé to engrave the new 10 guilder 'Labour and Welfare' banknote (which would eventually be issued in 1917). Although proofs of this did not win over the postal authorities, who described it as 'not without room for improvement', the designer of the stamps expressed a preference for Aarts as the engraver.

The experience was not a gratifying one. Starting in December 1912, it took Aarts until September 1913 to finish the twelve dies, and he complained about insufficiently prepared reference material and the fact that even ministers thought they should have a say in the engraving process.

The planned date of issue had to be postponed until the end of the year, but the stamps, portraying King Willem I, King Willem II, King Willem III and Queen Wilhelmina in elaborate large-format frames, were the grandest and most self-assertive yet issued by the Netherlands.

When the time came for another important commemorative issue, marking the 25th anniversary of Queen Wilhelmina's accession in 1923, Aarts was once again commissioned to engrave it. This set would have two designs, one portraying Wilhelmina in profile and the other a stylised image of an enthroned queen.

Aarts worked on the latter first, and it was when he was informed that a die by Enschedé's in-house engraver, Jan Warnaar, was preferred to his that he exploded with rage and threatened to abandon the project altogether. The Stamp Committee on the other hand, preferred Warnaar's engravings of both designs and would not have minded to see Aarts off the project.

The head of the stamp committee managed to calm the situation with a compromise solution, and an amended Aarts engraving of the enthroned queen was eventually adopted, while Warnaar engraved the profile design, leaving the printers Enschedé rather pleased that the work of their in-house engraver was deemed far superior to that of the famous Professor Aarts!

Ironically, Aarts' engraving of the Queen's portrait was used to print colour proofs of that stamp before Warnaar's die was finished, and these are on the philatelic market.

Aarts' rather uneasy relationship with the postal authorities ended on another sour note, when he was asked to engrave several values for the 1927 issue marking the 60th anniversary of the Dutch Red Cross Society, portraying King Willem III and Queen Wilhelmina.

He duly submitted essays and worked on amendments to them, but at a late stage in the process they were eventually rejected.

There remains a suspicion that his talents were undervalued by the powers-that-be, but at least he had the satisfaction of watching his pupils shape the future of Dutch stamp engraving.

You will find J J Aarts' database HERE.

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