From: 'Hanenpoot'.

Willem Bilderdijk was a late 18th-century and early 19th-century Dutch historian, lawyer and linguist. During his lifetime he was mostly famous as an influential poet. Today he is best remembered as the private Dutch-language teacher of Louis Napoléon Bonaparte, Napoleon's brother who ruled the Netherlands between 1806 and 1810. Bilderdijk was also a pioneer in comics. In 1806 he wrote and drew a text comic for his infant son named 'Hanenpoot' (1806). While strictly intended for private use and thus never published during his lifetime, imagery from the book has been printed posthumously.

Early life
Willem Bilderdijk was born in 1756 in Amsterdam as son of a doctor. Bilderdijk's father was a strict Calvinist and supporter of the more fundamentalist and monarchist Orangist movement. Strongly disliked by many townspeople his house was victim of vandalism a mere day after Willem's birth. Within a year the man became a tax collector instead, since few people wanted or dared to visit his doctor's office any longer. Willem Bilderdijk would inherit his dad's conservative ideals and contrarian political ideals. When the boy was six years old he hurt his foot, causing inflammation of his periosteum which was worsened by the bad medical treatment of the day. Spending most of his time inside the family home Bilderdijk became a lifelong hypochondriac. He always complained about migrain and feared he might soon die. Reading tons of books Bilderdijk became an educated individual. His private teacher Johannes van Dreght also taught him to draw.

Career and exile
Bilderdijk aspired to become a poet and in 1776 one of his political poems won an award in Leiden, from the poets collective Kunst Wordt Door Arbeid Verkregen. In 1781 he published his first poetry collection: 'Mijn Verlustiging' (1781). Most poems in the book were erotic in nature and personally illustrated. Yet his father insisted that he concentrated on a more lucrative profession instead. He installed Bilderdijk as a book keeper in his tax office. Between 1780 and 1782 Bilderdijk studied Law at the University of Leiden, settling as a lawyer in The Hague afterwards. One of his famous clients was Kaat Mossel, a local mussle saleswoman who supported the Orangist movement and due to her vocal activism lives on in the Dutch pejorative eponym "ka" ("a bossy woman"). In 1787 civil war between Orangists and their opponents (the Patriot movement) loomed. Bilderdijk was sent to Wezel, where he translated documents for the Prussian army and informed them about the Dutch state structure. When French troops invaded the Netherlands in 1795, Bilderdijk refused to bow to their demands. He left the city - also because he was in serious debt - and spent most of the following years in London and Germany.


Bilderdijk by C. van Cuylenburg (1795).

Louis Napoléon
In 1806 Bilderdijk and his family returned to the Netherlands. At this point the country was a French colony. Napoleon Bonaparte placed his younger brother Louis Napoléon on the throne, but everyone knew he was just a puppet king while the Corsican emperor held the real strings. Feeling belittled, Louis refused this job offer, but in the end Napoleon's demands were met. The new monarch was aware that he was off to a bad start. As such he wanted to know his fellow countrymen better. He travelled all corners of the Netherlands and took many measures to improve the living conditions, particularly during epidemics and floods. He centralised local governments and justice systems. King Louis Napoléon also wanted to learn Dutch. He took two private teachers, David Jacob van Lennep and Bilderdijk. Both managed to increase his language skills, but his accent remained rusty. A famous, but probably apocryphal, anecdote claims that the king once called himself "konijn of Holland" ("konijn" means "rabbit"). The king furthermore built a Royal Library, a project for which Bilderdijk also offered personal and professional advice.

The Dutch gradually started to like their new king. Unfortunately Napoleon Bonaparte felt he disobeyed too much of his orders. In 1810 Louis Napoleon was forced into abdication, while the Netherlands were annexed to France. Bilderdijk's years as Louis' private teacher inspired scenes in Hugo Leyers' comic book 'De Geschiedenis van Nederland' (1985) and the second volume of Thom Roep and Co Loerakker's 'Van Nul to Nu' (1985).


Drawing for Bilderdijk's poem 'Navonkeling' (1827).

Later life
When Louis left the country for good, Bilderdijk found himself without a steady income. He got addicted to opium and succombed into poverty. His luck returned in 1813 when the Netherlands regained their independence and became a constitutional monarchy under Willem I. The king provided him with an annual salary. Bilderdijk hoped to become an university professor, but his political and religious convictions had made him highly unpopular. Nevertheless he had an equal amount of influence on his students as a private history teacher. In 1831 Bilderdijk passed away in Haarlem. His writings and other memorabilia are still available in the Bilderdijk Museum.

Personal life
Bilderdijk had been married since 1785, but three of their children all died an early death. This caused tension and during his travels he met another woman, Katharina Wilhelmina Schweickhardt, with whom he would remarry in 1802. While Bilderdijk liked her much better, even their relationship met with much tension. It took several years before he could officially remarry, which drove him to despair. Nevertheless they had their first child, Julius Willem, long before that date. Many people scolded Bilderdijk for having an extramarital affair with an unmarried woman, which had produced a "bastard" son. This strained their relationship even further, particularly considering the moral dilemma posed by their own staunch religious convictions. Things got even worse when six of their eight children didn't survive childhood. Of the two who did, only one enjoyed a long adult life. The couple's home was destroyed in the 1807 Gunpowder Explosion of Leiden. Schweickhardt suffered a serious crisis of faith, but sought escapism by writing several plays and poems. Unfortunately much of her career was eclipsed by Bilderdijk's fame. It wasn't until the 1990s before her work gained more public interest.


Illustration for the booklet 'Nieuwe Vermaking' (1828).

Comic book 'Hanenpoot'
In 1807 Bilderdijk wrote a little picture book for his toddler son Julius Willem (who would die in 1819 at age 21 on board of a merchant ship). The work was titled 'Hanenpoot' (literally: "Rooster paw", but it can also allude to "badly decipherable writing"). Bilderdijk and his wife used to read it to Julius as a bedtime story. The eight-page book stars a little boy, Hanenpoot, who is described as a "smart fellow". The kid is indeed quite crafty. He uses his bare behind for a variety of acts, including roasting a piece of bread. In another storyline he manages to fend off fleas. 'Hanenpoot' is interesting because it features a series of sequential images with handwritten sentences underneath it. This makes Bilderdijk one of the earliest Dutch comics pioneers, along with Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Otto van Veen and Romeyn de Hooghe. Together with de Hooghe's cartoons, 'Hanenpoot' is the earliest Dutch text comic with a signature. Bilderdijk furthermore goes down in history as the first celebrity cartoonist who wasn't known as a graphic artist. Yet in his own lifetime nobody outside his family was aware of the book's existence. He only intended it for private use.


From: 'Hanenpoot '.

About 170 years later (!) 'Hanenpoot' finally received a posthumous publication, in a booklet published by Tjeenk Willink ('Hanenpoot - Prentenboek voor zijn zoontje Julius Willem', 1977). By then readers looked at it with different eyes and recognized it as an early comic strip. Rob Richard discussed this work in Kees and Evelien Kousemaker's book 'Wordt Vervolgd - Stripleksikon der Lage Landen' (1979), as part of his chapter on the history of Dutch comics. He suggested that there might have been many other of these picture books in the 19th century, made by artistic parents and circulating only among friends and family. After all, back then comics weren't a genre yet and most picture books were regarded as children's entertainment without any other value. Even the first genuine comics artist in history, Rodolphe Töpffer, originally saw no reason to publish his self-made comic books until his influential friend, the German poet Goethe, motivated him to do so. Seeing that Bilderdijk was a respected author of "serious" adult literature it's quite possible that he perhaps didn't want to lend his name to a children's book, out of fear of harming his reputation.


Willem Bilderdijk by Charles Howard Hodges (1810).

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