Introducing Mr. Josephus Augustus Knip. His life was a complicated saga pre-destined for total darkness. His one year in Italy however, was uniquely splendid in its lightness.
Artistic blood flows pure and fast in the Knip veins. Born into creativity in Tilburg, the Netherlands in 1877, Josephus Augustus Knip was the son of a decorative painter named Nicolaas Frederik. Knip’s father was his first teacher.
The family moved to the nearby city of s-Hertogenbosch when Josephus was 11. As well as being the birthplace of Hieronymus Bosch, one of the most hellishly apocolyptic artistic minds in history, the city had a long and bloody history of seige & warfare spanning over 5 centuries before the Knips moved there. s-Hertogenbosch was a city conceived of & founded in 1185 by Duke Henry 1st of Brabant as a fortress to protect his family estate on forested dunes in the middle of a marsh. So perhaps it was no surprise when, six years after moving there, French revolutionary troops under the command of Charles Pichegru attacked the city in 1794 during the Thirty Years War. It was only weakly defended, and fell after a short siege. From s-Hertogenbosch, Pichegru was then able to crossed the rivers and put an end to the Dutch Republic.
At age 19, Knip inherited family breadwinner status when his father went completely blind. Knip taught his sister Henriëtte Geertruida to paint & he taught her well. Henriëtte Geertruida Knip became a painter of flowers in the classic Dutch style.
Doing in later life his favour proved to be a good move in later life. His sister now owed him one. Decades later Henriëtte would be in a position to shine a sisterly financial light into a time of physical and financial darkness for her brother.
By his mid-20s, Knip had established himself in Paris as a painter of landscapes and Napoleon lll’s drawing master. In Paris he met, courted & married the noted French bird painter, Pauline Rifer de Courcelles (1781 – 1851) who would henceforth be known as “Madame Kip”.
During the eighteenth century, ancient ruins were being rediscovered and reinterpreted aesthetically as their popularity and their importance as artistic subjects increased. Josephus Augustus Knip felt the pull.
In 1812 and after 9 years there Knip left Paris and went to Rome. From there he travelled; with his easel over his shoulder and a strong muse in his heart, Josephus Augustus roamed the classical sites of Italy; Naples, Palestrina, Tivolli, Terni, Vesuvius, the Sabine Hills, the Alban Hills and the Campagna.
Knips forenames, Joseph August are almost always “Latinized” to Josephus Augutsus. It makes him sound like a god, and a god he was. Josephus Augustus was a god of light and of perception. The “so little is known” epithet that applies to so many artists of this time also (& of course) applies to Knip. One thing we do know is that Josephus Augustus Knip is no slave to the trending visual aesthetics of the day. No romantic Gothic darkness here. Knip had in mind a unique, much grander and more enlightened scheme of things to bring to the romancing of ruined civilisations party.
Knip harnessed his powers to conjure a singular and quite magical squinting-through-your-eyelashes-into-a-sun-blasted-dream-memory-haze vision of ancient Rome. The hiils and ruins of ancient civilisation in his eyes and under his gaze are scorched pale, faded but not quite dead. Vital, not old. They manifest as vivid, vibrant and alive. Knip is in touch with the broader context of time. These long ago much romanced abandoned ruins of the ancients become recently vacated buildings.
After a year in Italy, Knip returned to the Netherlands with his French wife, the bird painter Pauline Rifer de Courcelles a.k.a. Madame Knip on his arm. The couple returned to Knip’s childhood home, s-Hertogenbosch in North Brabant, about 80km from Amsterdam. Knip continued to work as a painter.
This is the “and it was all going so well” moment.
The prodigal son returns. A noted painter, ex-drawing master to Napoleon 111 & husband to the noted French painter.
He must have looked back at this time as the great “it was all going so well moment in his life.
The time before it all went pear-shaped.
Having settled back into life in the Netherlands, Knip painted The Gulf of Naples with the Island of Ischia in the Distance (1818). To paint it in his studio in s-Hertogenboschs, Knip relied for reference on sketches he’d made in Italy some 5 years previously. Yes, there’s all the ingredients; the Gulf of Naples, with the island of Ischia and the volcano Epomeo in the distance, add to that several Roman monuments: the ruins of the Colosseum, Nero’s aqueduct and the church of SS Quattro Coronati. Yes, it’s all there, it’s beautiful, but it’s Italy romanced – imagined from afar which makes the image expected and detached. Simply romantic flotsom in a in a sea of similar contemporary wallpaper. Cheesy. Nothing at all like the series of etherial watercolours he produced en plein air when he was actually there. That was his moment. That year. 1812-1813. That was when he broke away.
By the early 1820s Knip’s eyes began to fail his oh-so skilful hands. Enter sister Henriëtte Geertruida. Now living Paris & married to fellow flower painter Gerard van Spaendonck from the Knip’s hometown of Tilburg, Henriëtte was obliged to send regular financial support to her brother’s family back in the Netherland. To compound this situation, by 1821 Knip was separated from Pauline (the painter of birds) and living with his mistress, Cornelia van Leeuwen Knip. The couple scandalously produced a daughter out of wedlock & named her after their benefactor, Knip’s sister Henriëtte.
By 1823 Knip had lost all sight in one eye. Then a year later in 1824, Pauline divorced him. A cycle. First his father and then him too. First one eye. Then, of course the other.
As his eyesight dwindled, Knip began giving painting lessons which meant his mistress Cornelia & their daughter moved often as Knip was now giving painting lessons and followed the work.
It had taken a long slow decade for his world to fade. In 1832 Josephus Augustus Knip went completely blind.
It must have been a bitter sweey moment of recognition and relief then when William I (1772–1843), King of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands stepped in & awarded Knip with a pension for life for him, his mistress & daughter to live on.
The family kept moving. To the Hague, then to Beek, then back to s-Hertogenbosch before finally settling at Berlium in 1840. By this time and at 19 years old, Henriëtte was essentially in charge of all the family’s finances and legal obligations. She (of course) was an artist and had begun painting seriously at 13 years old. Henriëtte was evidently able to navigate managing the huge responsibilities of what would have been seen at the time as a disfunctioning family unit with her painting career because, in 1938 her work was on exhibition at the prestigious Exhibition of Living Masters.
Knip died in Berlicum & was buried there on 1st October 1847. Knip’s lover & Henriëtte’s mother Cornelia died the following year.
After the death of her mother & father in short succession, Henriëtte moved to Amsterdam. There she painted farms, animals and forests from nature; first in watercolor, then in oils. That same year, she became the first female admitted ever to be admitted to Arti et Amicitiae, the pre-eminent Dutch artist’s society in Amsterdam. In 1850, she married a Feico Ronner and moved to Brussels with him. Feico plagued with illness, could not be regularly employed and so became Henriëtte’s manager.
Over time Henriëtte narrowed her subject matter down to dogs and cats. Her most famous works featured long-haired, often playful cats in bourgeois settings. Commissioned to immortalise the the pets of aristocracy & royalty, Henriëtte painted the lapdogs of Marie Henriette of Austria and Princess Marie of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen. In 1893 she exhibited her work in the Palace of Fine Arts at the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago.
In her later years, she had a house with a large garden & kept hunting dogs, cats and a parrot that she used as models. Animals don’t sit still. After carefully observing her models in the studio, Henriëtte would make paper sculptures of them in the poses she liked before sitting them in sets of furniture and fabric to paint.
Henriëtte’s children Alfred & Alice (of course) became painters & she often exhibited jointly with them.