'Uit het Kladschrift van Jantje', about dictators (De Groene Amsterdammer, 21 April 1934). From left to right we recognize Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, being chased away by Dutch Prime Minister Hendrikus Colijn, Minister of Justice J.R.H. van Schaik, Minister of Foreign Affairs Jacob Adriaan de Wilde, Minister of Finance P.J. Oud , Minister of Education, Arts and Science J.R. Slotemaker de Bruine, Minister of Water Management J.A. Kalff and Minister of Defense, L.N. Deckers. 

Felix Hess was a Dutch painter, etcher, lithographer, cartoonist and book cover designer. During his career, he worked on a couple of comics, of which the satirical feature 'Uit het Kladschrift van Jantje' (1916-1936) in De Groene Amsterdammer was the best known. Through his comic, Hess gave commentary on local and national politics and society, but then presented as if it was completely written and drawn by a schoolboy. While 'Uit het Kladschrift van Jantje' wasn't always a "pure" comic strip (many episodes were one-panel cartoons), it was the first regularly appearing comic series by a local artist in a Dutch periodical. In uninterrupted production for two full decades, it was additionally the first long-running comic series in the Netherlands, holding this record up until 1951. Like many Jewish citizens during World War II, Felix Hess' life ended in tragedy, when he and his wife became victim of the Holocaust. It wasn't until decades after his death that his important pioneering role in Dutch comics history was recognized. Felix Hess the cartoonist (1878-1943) should not be confused with the Dutch artist and physicist Felix Hess (1941-2022).

Early life 
Felix Isidor Hess was born in 1878 in Amsterdam as the fourth of eight children. The son of a stock-broker father and a German mother, he grew up as part of the wealthy Jewish middle class in the Amsterdam canal belt district. Between 1901 and 1905, he studied at the State Academy of Fine Arts ("Rijksacademie van Beeldende Kunsten"), where painter August Allebé and graphic artist Pieter Dupont were among his teachers.

His tutor Allebé molded Hess into a sober and subdued painter, a follower of the Hague School of realist painters. Hess has also been associated with the Laren School, an artist colony in the town of Laren, known for their Impressionist landscapes. Throughout his career, both in his painting and cartooning, Hess remained a traditionalist and conservative, averse from any modernist or revolutionary movement. Struggling to gain social status as a fine artist, Hess tried to earn some extra income by organizing painting classes at his Amsterdam home. One of his students was his future wife Eliza Binger (1878-1943), who was four weeks older than him. The daughter of a Jewish lawyer, Binger had the same prosperous background as Felix Hess, and the two probably knew each other since childhood. Felix and Eliza Hess got married in 1919, and lived in De Pijp, a working-class neighborhood with artistic enclaves. Since 1910, Felix Hess was a member of the art circles Vereeniging St. Lucas and Arti et Amicitae, but in 1941, during the Nazi occupation, he had to leave both societes because of his Jewish heritage. 

Having little success as a painter, Hess also tried his hand at etching, pen-and-ink drawings and graphic art assignments. By 1908, he had also ventured into political cartooning, and had his first drawings published in the satirical weekly De Ware Jacob. Several years later, a contest organized by the political cultural weekly De Groene Amsterdammer caught his attention. The contestants were asked to give their view on "the attitude of the Netherlands in 1915", and Hess decided to participate. To visualize the phenomena of the day, he used a child-like illustration style, possibly inspired by the 1841 text comic 'Un Génie Incompris (M. Barnabé Gogo)' ("A Misunderstood Genius") by the French cartoonist and caricaturist Cham. Like Cham's comic strip, Hess' cartoon was deliberately drawn in an unsophisticated, pseudo-naïve style, resembling the graphic skills of a small boy on an elementary school writing slate. In the early 20th century, these types of slates were still widely used in Dutch schools. The editors of De Groene Amsterdammer were pleased with Hess' original approach, and ran his submission.

Part of the first 'Kladschrift van Jantje', about women's suffrage (1916). The episode visualizes what Jantje saw during a Dutch suffragist demonstration. 

Uit het Kladschrift van Jantje
In June 1916, one year after his first publication in De Groene Amsterdammer, Hess witnessed a march for women's suffrage. His soon-to-be wife Eliza Binger wrote a poem about it, which Hess then illustrated in the same pseudo-infantile drawing style. Again, he sent it to the editors of De Groene Amsterdammer, who ran it in the 24 June issue of their magazine. Readers enjoyed this satirical visualisation of a recent event and the editors were quick to ask Hess for weekly episodes. Over the next twenty years, 'Uit het Kladschrift van Jantje' (literally, "From Johnny's Scratch Pad") remained a regular feature in the magazine. Every week, Hess commented on social and political issues through the eyes of a child. The column was unsigned and presented as if it was actually written and drawn by a six-year-old kid called Jantje. The "boy" became part of the weekly's regular artist team, which also consisted of Johan Braakensiek, Leendert Jordaan, Wam Heskes, Henri Verstijnen, George van Raemdonck and Bernard van Vlijmen.

In an interview published in Algemeen Handelsblad on 19 June 1938, Hess commented that in the early days of the strip, the editors gave him great creative freedom. He could almost pick any topic he wanted. Hess described himself as a liberal and a traditionalist, who on the other hand spared no taboos. Each strip was constructed as a sequence of simplistic drawings, with Jantje's pseudo-naïve commentary written in children's handwriting. Hiding behind his young alter ego, Hess ventilated against everything and everyone he disagreed with. Names of politicians, moral guardians and other targeted issues were deliberately misspelled, like a child would do. Democracy - considered a novelty by the cartoonist - was, for instance, always written as "demokraatsjie". In a way, Jantje, and thus Hess, considered every form of politics deception of the public.

Colorized version of 'Uit het Kladschrift van Jantje', published in black-and-white in De Groene Amsterdammer on 9 May 1931. In this episode, Hess criticizes the policy of filling the Amsterdam waterways in favor of the increasing automobile traffic by suggesting underground highways.

Another regular target in the 'Jantje' episodes was the temperance movement, which agitated against alcohol consumption. Its festivities were presented as dull occasions and one of its avid foremen - socialist politician Adriaan Gerhard - was drawn as an angry, petulant little man. The same treatment was given to chaplain Johannes Bemelmans, the personification of a patronizing Catholic moralist. Hess also strongly opposed to zionism, the militarist Germans and modernist architectutre. Another recurring thorn in the cartoonist's flesh was the advance of the automobile in the Amsterdam street scene; even the implementation of the most basic rules for slow traffic were panned in the strip as scandalous acts by a totalitarian regime. Almost prophetically, Hess feared how cars would eventually take over the city, and in one episode, he had Jantje draw his solution to the problem: underground highways, with the above ground city remaining peaceful, quiet and full of green and water. Oddly enough, Felix Hess was an avid royalist, much unlike his republican editors at De Groene.

Over a course of twenty years, Hess created a time capsule of early 20th-century Amsterdam. Among the many local topics he covered were the filling of the Rokin waterway, the 1928 Summer Olympics in the city and the rejected plans for an opera building on the Museumplein square. In some episodes, Hess portrayed himself as Oom Felix, Jantje's painter uncle.

Running for 20 years straight, 'Uit Het Kladschrift van Jantje' was at the time the longest-running Dutch comic feature. With a 15-year run, A.M. de Jong and George van Raemdonck's 'Bulletje en Boonestaak' (1922-1937), was for a while the second longest-running Dutch comic series, until both comics were surpassed in 1951 by Frans Piët's 'Sjors' (en Sjimmie)'. In 1916, the Amsterdam Life Insurance Company released a booklet of 'Uit Het Kladschrift van Jantje'. The feature was also the first Dutch comic to be translated, namely in German in 1924. 

'Uit het Kladschrift van Jantje', about the merits of cleaning and DIY (De Groene Amsterdammer, 27 May 1922).

Jong Nederland
On 11 November 1916, Hess was also the first illustrator of Jong Nederland, the "New Children's Weekly for Boys and Girls". Between 25 November 1916 and 19 March 1921, the magazine ran another prototypical comic by him, 'De Geschiedenis in Beeld' ("History in Images"), in which the history of the Netherlands was told in picture story format. This first educational series was followed by two additional Hess features, 'Van Vreemde Landen en Volken' ("Of Strange Countries and People", 1918-1920) and 'De Omgekeerde Wereld' ("The World Upside Down", 1924-1925). Another important artist for Jong Nederland was Daan Hoeksema.

Other satirical work
Thanks to its unique concept, 'Uit Het Kladschrift van Jantje' made Hess a rising star in Dutch cartooning. Besides his work for "De Groene", he contributed to other magazines and newspapers. Between 1918 and 1921, he also made drawings for De Loods, the political literary magazine of the liberal party, Economic League. For Uiltje, a humor weekly modelled after the British Punch magazine, he made a feature called 'Bladen uit mijn Schetsboek' ("From My Sketchbook", 1921). Even though it had a similar approach as Jantje, the drawings for this feature were not made in a childlike style, and signed by the artist with his own name. Hess was additionally present in the weekly Wereldkroniek with the comic strip 'De Familie Lijntrekker', and also in the Flemish magazine Pallieter, for which he made Jantje-like drawings.

'Poes en Muis Spel', a 1922 board game.

Eliza Hess-Binger
Meanwhile, Hess' wife Eliza Hess-Binger was substantially contributing to the family income with her own activities. Since 1916, she wrote children's tales and poems for the children's magazine Jong Nederland, for which Felix Hess made the illustrations. An English teacher during daytime, she also wrote and translated many children's books. Between 1929 and 1931, she reworked eight Russian children's books for a Dutch audience, published by the socialist society De Baanbreker. During the 1930s, she translated the work of black poets like the African-American Langston Hughes and the Sierra Leone writer Gladys May Casely-Hayford. Accompanied by a blues guitarist, she also performed these poems on stage. Eliza Hess was additionally a performance artist with AVRO radio.

For her children's book work, Eliza Hess often collaborated with the prominent Dutch illustrator Nelly Bodenheim, but also with her husband. Among Eliza and Felix Hess' co-productions were the youth books 'Berijmde Vaderlandsche Geschiedenis' (Strengholt, 1933) - telling Dutch national history in rhyme - and 'Het Heele Jaar Door' (Enum, 1933), a calendar book with rhymes, riddles and stories for every day of the year. In addition,, they developed a cat and mouse board game ('Poes en Muis Spel'), which came as a supplement with the 1922 Christmas issue of De Groene Amsterdammer.

'De Wonderlijke Reis van Jan Klaassen' (Algemeen Handelsblad, 23 July 1929). The original episodes showed the actual puppet play.

Collaboration with Leonard Roggeveen
In addition to his regular magazine work, Hess took commissions for drawing Jantje-type illustrations on menu cards, invitation cards and other promotional artwork. He also designed covers and made interior illustrations for books. One of his main associates was the famous teacher and writer of children's literature Leonard Roggeveen (1898-1959). Hess provided illustrations for Roggeveen's children's book 'De Ongelooflijke Avonturen van Bram Vingerling' (Van Goor, 1927), which collected a feature Roggeveen had written for the newspaper Schager Courant in 1925. The two men collaborated again on the newspaper picture story 'De Wonderlijke Reis van Jan Klaassen' ("The Amazing Journey of Jan Klaassen"), serialized in Algemeen Handelsblad between 19 July 1929 and 27 January 1930. In the first episode, the puppeteer Jacob Pepernoot is about to perform a show for kids in the street. It stars all the famous characters from the 'Punch and Judy' plays, known in Dutch as Jan Klaassen, his wife Katrijn, the police officer, the landlord and a scoundrel called Pierlala. As Pepernoot returns back home, he loses the puppets in a storm. The rest of the narrative follows the puppet's adventures in the real world. In the real-life puppet shows, children were encouraged to participate (shouting "Jan Klaassen! Look behind you!"). In Roggeveen and Hess' comic, similar interactions were made. Young readers were stimulated to color the black-and-white episodes and send them to the paper. Jan Klaassen himself promised that the ten best colorists would receive "some great surprises". Algemeen Handelsblad released the story in book format in June 1930.

'De Wonderlijke Reis van Jan Klaassen'. 

Leaving De Groene Amsterdammer
By the mid-1930s, times had changed and Hess' tenure with De Groene Amsterdammer slowly came to an end. It became obvious that the good-natured and childlike treatment of everyday politics in 'Uit het Kladschrift van Jantje' was no match against the growing European unrest under the violent Nazi threat. Hess' attempts to ridicule the Dutch national-socialist leader Anton Mussert as a baby in a diaper failed to hit the mark. Also, De Groene Amsterdammer got a new editorial board with different values and beliefs, and editorial opposition made it difficult for the artist to continue. Jantje's presence in the magazine became less frequent, and in 1936, 'Uit het Kladschrift van Jantje' disappeared from the magazine altogether. Between April 1936 and August 1937, Hess tried his luck with another feature for De Groene Amsterdammer, 'Uit het Dagboek van Pierken' ("From Pierken's Diary"), a series of spoof school essays by a Flemish kid. To mock his northern neighbors, Pierken's Dagboek was written in pseudo-Flemish slang. Each episode consisted of two written texts, with images on both sides of the column. Contrary to 'Jantje's Kladschrift', 'Pierken's Dagboek' had no relation to current affairs and was a more straightforward, timeless parody of a children's diary. Lasting little over a year, it was discontinued in August 1937, whereupon Hess left De Groene Amsterdammer for good.

World War II and death
After his departure from De Groene Amsterdammer in 1937, Felix Hess became an artist for Het Liberale Weekblad, the official party organ of the Liberale Staatspartij. Because he was now restricted to party politics, his drawings in this magazine were far less biting than his work for De Groene Amsterdammer. In 1940, Hitler invaded and occupied The Netherlands. In February 1941, the Nazis implemented a publication ban for Het Liberale Weekblad, leaving him without a creative source of income. A couple of months later, Jewish citizens were banned out of all public organisations, institutions and other aspects of social life. Hess was removed from the Amsterdam art associations Vereeniging St. Lucas and Arti et Amicitae. In order to continue their activities, artists had to register in a new cultural organisation, the Nazi-controlled "Kulturkammer", which left Jewish artists out of work altogether.

By doing the occasional portrait assignment, Hess still found a way to keep working. In July 1941, he became art director with Michaplast, a company that hosted a studio for Jewish artists in hiding. Located in the back of a building in the Nieuwe Kerkstraat, the team painted romantic landscapes in serial production, ironically intended for export to German clients. In early 1943, the studio was forced to close its doors, presumably after a Nazi raid. A couple of weeks later, Hess and his wife Eliza were arrested and sent to the Westerbork transit camp, where they arrived on 27 March 1943. On 6 April, they were deported to the Sobibór concentration camp in Poland. Three days after their arrival, they were murdered in the gas chambers. Their home in Amsterdam's Albert Cuypstraat was raided, and most of Hess' paintings were never recovered.

Legacy and influence
'Uit Het Kladschrift van Jantje' (1916-1936) by Felix Hess was the first Dutch comic feature to enjoy a long run with some international exposure. However, this achievement should be viewed in the right perspective. In a sense, 'Uit Het Kladschrift van Jantje' was an illustrated column with the occasional sequential narrative. Most episodes were one-panel illustrations, combined with handwritten text inside the drawing. On top of that, the title character is more of a passive observer than a comic hero who goes on serialized adventures. In the feature's setup, Jantje is the creator of the feature, and not an active participant. These elements aside, 'Jantje' still laid the foundations for a regularly appearing Dutch comic strip, striking it big with general audiences. 

At the time of its publication, 'Uit Het Kladschrift van Jantje' was also highly influential. In Jantje's wake, several other cartoonists used Hess' comic-style format for their social commentaries. Ton van Tast's 'De Daverende Dingen Dezer Dagen' (1923-1948) had a similar approach of using political caricatures in sequential narratives. Work by the Catholic cartoonist Louis De Leeuw in De Roskam also shows similarities to the comic strips of Felix Hess. In the anti-revolutionary magazine De Houten Pomp, Hein Kray even completely mimicked the pseudo-naïve drawing style and the Jantje format for his own feature 'Uit Het Schetsboekje van Heintje' (1922).

During his lifetime, Hess regularly exhibited his original 'Jantje' comics in Amsterdam galleries, the first known show being in January 1918, at the gallery of Nico Eisenloeffel. Between 1932 and 1939, no less than eight expositions were dedicated to 'Jantje'; three in Amsterdam, two in The Hague, one in Utrecht and two abroad. In 1932, Hess was represented with some of his 'Jantje' drawings in a group show in the Künstlerhaus in Vienna, Austria. In 1937, Hess was part of the 'Salon Comique' exhibition that travelled through cities in the Dutch Indies (present-day Indonesia). Since they were originally printed in black-and-white, Hess used watercolor paint to colorize his 'Jantje' comics for these expositions.

During the early war years, when art commissions quickly diminished, Hess tried to earn some extra income by auctioning off his artwork. In 1940, a batch of 'Jantje' originals was auctioned at Arti et Amicitae. An announced second auction didn't take place; by then Hess was already removed from the society. Shortly after the Dutch Liberation, in July 1945, Felix Hess was already represented in a group exposition dedicated to resistance artists, held in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. By then, it was still unknown whether Hess, as well as several other artists featured in the exposition, were still alive. In January-February 1947, Hess was represented in a special group memorial show in Arti et Amicitae for artists that died during the war. A second auction of 'Jantje' originals was finally held in April 1946. Several of these artworks have ended up in public collections.

Despite his success during the interbellum period, Hess' life and career were brutally disrupted by World War II. As a victim of the Holocaust, he was a tragic example of an artist who might have achieved even greater things in different circumstances. In the post-war years, he faded away in obscurity. In the 1970s, when Dutch historians traced back the origins of the national comic industry, he was rediscovered and recognized as an important pioneer. In 2022, the Dutch historian Sytze van der Veen chronicled Felix Hess' life and work in the biography 'De Wereld van Jantje - Felix Hess, Schilder en Tekenaar, 1878-1943' (Amphora Books, 2022).

Felix Hess in 1938 (Algemeen Handelsblad, 19 June 1938).

Series and books by Felix Hess you can order today:


If you want to help us continue and improve our ever- expanding database, we would appreciate your donation through Paypal.