Jan Poortenaar – An Artist in Java

When first we conceived the plan of spending an undefined period in that “Somewhere East of Suez” , where the tropical East stretches an arm of land three thousand miles long towards Australia, we did it with the light-hearted cheerfulness of enthusiasts. We loved travel and here were strange sights and stranger peoples, other skies, other men, other manners; we loved the arts, and here we could practise music and painting and literature, my wife, Geertruida van Vladeracken, giving concerts as we went. I filling sketch-books, and both of us concocting this book of our impressions. We should be brought in touch, moreover, with the surviving native art of these vast islands, and in particular with the exquisite theatre art of the Wayang and of the Court dancing which had already attracted the attention of European theatre lovers by its tradition of exotic beauty. So it was to be an art journey through the Eastern Tropics, a quest of beauty and interest, with some little air of the Troubadour about it; for had we not songs for sale?

Jan Poortenaar – An Artist in Java

This little known book was the outcome of a leisurely journey made by a Dutch artist and his wife through Indonesia – then the Dutch East Indies – in the 1920’s. Jan Poortenaar travelled extensively in Indonesia with his wife Geertruida van Vladeracken who performed as a singer/reciter and was accompanied by Poortenaar on piano.

The Haughty Durmagati (Javanese Actor)

In Solo they were invited to the court of H.R.H. the Soesoekan Pakoe Boewono X, and in Yogya to the court of H.R.H. the Sultan Hamengkoeboewono VIII. There they had the opportunity to see the noble Serimpi dancers and Wayang players, which Poortenaar rendered in colourful oils and watercolours. 

The King of Awangga (Javanese Actor)

They spent most of their time in Java but also visited Madura, Bali, Sulawesi, Kalimantan and Sumatra. Jan Poortenaar was clearly a skilled artist who could provide with pencil and brush, a decorative interpretation of a beautiful country with a rich artistic life such as Indonesia. There are included in the book fifty-five of his sketches and paintings of all parts of Indonesia.

A Javanese Village

The Indonesian landscape inspired Poortenaar to execute a major series of large etchings related to the many places they visited. Poortenaar and his wife recorded their journeys throughout Indonesia in Een kunstreis in de Tropen, later translated as ‘An artist in Java, and other Islands of Indonesia’. His writing was intensely visual in its descriptions, as only an artist would make it; and through his highly placed introductions, he could give a reader glimpses into Javanese life rarely observed by the casual visitor.

Two Javanese

At another level, the book is also interesting because of its observant portrayal of the Dutch social life of the period, with its extremes of formal and informal behaviour. Thus this is an unusual book, which is other than an art book, other than a travel book, and other than a diary.

Portrait of a Javanese Boy

It is notable that they also travelled to the outer islands of Sulawesi, Kalimantan and Sumatra. This was because the Artist’s wife Geertruida van Vladeracken was performing as part of a concert tour, which was the basis of their journey, and she was also part author, part translator, and certainly inspirer of this book.


About ianburnet

Author of the book, Spice Islands. Which tells the History, Romance and Adventure of the spice trade from the Moluccas in Eastern Indonesia over a period of 2000 years. Author of the book, East Indies.Which tells the history of the struggle between the Portuguese Crown, the Dutch East India Company and the English East India Company for supremacy in the Eastern Seas. Author of the book 'Archipelago - A Journey Across Indonesia'. Author of the book 'Where Australia Collides with Asia' Author of the book 'The Tasman Map'. Author of the book 'Eastern Voyages'.
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6 Responses to Jan Poortenaar – An Artist in Java

  1. Denis O'Hara says:

    Wonderful images that carry depth of insight.

  2. Julian Millie says:

    Great piece Ian!
    Gorgeous images.

  3. Toni Pollard says:

    I have this book – read it decades ago but you have inspired me to search it out again and give it a second go. Wonderful paintings,

  4. ianburnet says:

    Thanks Toni and I have enjoyed reading an ‘An Artist in Java’ again.

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