Sequential picture story for a school book.

Anton Pieck was a Dutch engraver, painter and etcher, who is best known as a book illustrator. He enjoyed a long career which encapsulated almost the entire 20th century, even though one couldn't tell from looking at his artwork. His drawings and paintings were always set in the past, particularly the 19th century. He made countless works with a cosy, nostalgic feel to them. The Romantic illustrator was well known for his portrayals of fairy tales, such as his iconic 'Fairy Tales of Grimm' (1940) and 'Arabian Nights' (1943-1956). These later became the template for the Dutch theme park De Efteling, for which he designed the fairy tale forest and most of their architecture. Anton Pieck has always been an audience's favourite, but was reviled by serious art lovers for being petty kitsch. Still, friend and foe had to admit that he was an accomplished draftsman with a highly unique, instantly recognizable and barely imitated style. While Anton Pieck made few comics in his life, he did create occasional text comics for the magazine Zonneschijn in the 1920s and provided sequential illustrations for various novels.

'Aladdin and the Magic Lamp', from 'Arabian Nights'.

Early life
Anton Franciscus Pieck was born in 1895 in Den Helder in the province North Holland. His father had a small position with the Royal Dutch Marine, while his mother was a housewife. Pieck had a twin brother, Henri, who shared a similar gift for drawing. Yet Henri would lead a different, far more exciting and dangerous life than Anton. As an adult he became active within the Dutch Communist Party, working as a spy for Soviet Russia. Henri's artistic interests also differed from those of Anton. While he was interested in modern art, Anton loved old-fashioned illustrations and paintings. Among his graphic influences were Herman Heuff, Henri Daalhoff, Theo Goedvriend, Adriaan Mioléé, Cornelis Springer, George Hendrik Breitner, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt van Rijn, Johannes Vermeer, Frans Hals, Carl Spitzweg, Charles Rochussen, Walter Vaes, Henri De Braeckeleer, W.O.J. Nieuwenkamp, Hokusai, Gustave Doré, George Cruikshank, Arthur Rackham, Edmond Dulac, Hablôt Knight Browne and Carl Larsson. He studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts and the Bik en Vaandrager institute, both located in The Hague. After graduation he stayed at the latter school to become an art teacher.

During the First World War the Netherlands remained neutral, but nevertheless many young Dutchmen were mobilized just to be on standby in case of a military conflict. Pieck was one of them. He was named sergeant, but nevertheless spent most of his spare time drawing for his fellow recruits. A 1915 psychological army rapport described Pieck as "someone who looks more at the past than the future and will therefore never amount to anything." Under the realization that they couldn't use him for ordinary military duties, Pieck was sent to The Hague, where he gave drawing lessons to other soldiers. For four evenings a week of two hours each, Pieck could spend all his time doing what he loved best.

Teaching career
After the war Pieck became an art teacher at the Kennemer Lyceum in Bloemendaal. He would stay there until his retirement in 1960, even though he was never quite happy with his job. After school he couldn't wait to dash home and continue drawing and painting. But the job at least offered him financial stability and the luxury of picking out commissions which pleased him, rather than being forced to work on stuff he disliked. Apart from teaching, he also illustrated diplomas, bulletins, ex-libris, birth cards and other administrational documents for his school.

Pieck's illustrations for the four seasons in the Netherlands.

In the 1920s Anton Pieck published his first drawings. He struck a friendship with the Flemish novelist Felix Timmermans (father of cartoonist GoT), whose jovial attitude convinced him to become more spontaneous and follow his own spirit. Pieck illustrated Timmermans' signature novel 'Pallieter' and visited Flanders to research the local atmosphere. He would remain an enthusiastic traveller his entire life, visiting England, France, Ireland, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Poland and Morocco to make sketches. Yet he had no interest in modern architecture. Instead he looked at nature and picturesque cities and villages. Pieck always saw Belgium and England as his second mother countries, since they weren't as modernized as The Netherlands. Despite having only lived in the final five years of the 19th century, Pieck had a strong nostalgia for this era. He made countless paintings, drawings, etchings and engravings depicting Dickensian scenes. People in high hat or crinoline taking coach rides, watching a magic lantern or listening to barrel organs or chamber concerts… all contributed to his artistic ideal. Naturally he only accepted commissions which allowed him to illustrate novels or short stories set in some ancient era, like Hildebrand's 'Camera Obscura', Selma Lagerlöf's 'Nils Holgersson' and Charles Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol'. Everything that looked ancient appealed to him. Buildings, stairs, roads and wells had to be crooked, crumbled or rusty. Nothing was allowed to look new or be built completely straight.

Illustration for Zonneschijn. 

Pieck was such a nostalgic person that basically every piece of art he made was set in a romantic past. Even though he lived long enough to experience the 1980s, the general public assumed he was actually a 19th-century artist who presumably passed away decades ago. Yet it was true that Pieck felt he was born in the wrong century. He never enjoyed his own time period that much. The nostalgic artist had no love for modern art, architecture or technology. The man was so old-fashioned that he still made all his prints by hand, using an authentic printing press in his own house. He didn't even own a car, nor a radio or a TV. Pieck regretted that so many old buildings were torn down in favour of more contemporary architecture, devoid of any character. In his opinion people in the past spent more time crafting beautiful buildings, since they basically had to live in their vicinity. The arrival of cars and highways made people travel great distances between locations, making it less important that every spot looked nice. Yet he wasn't completely out-of-touch or against modern life either. He had, for instance, tremendous respect for the work of Norman Rockwell and Walt Disney. Otherwise Pieck mostly dwelled in his own dreams of idealized pasts, which he visualized so memorably on paper.

Illustration for Zonneschijn (1930).

Fairy tale illustrations
Pieck's ability to mimick days of yesteryear made him a natural for illustrating fantasy stories and fairy tales. During the mid-1920s he joined the children's magazine Zonneschijn, where his illustrations appeared alongside those by Hans Borrebach, Tjeerd Bottema, Rie Cramer, H. de Hoog, Jan Feith, Jan Kraan, Freddie Langeler, Jan Lutz, Johanna Bernardina Midderigh-Bokhorst, George van Raemdonck, Henri Verstijnen en Jan Wiegman. He made drawings for various children's stories, some published in text comic format. Naturally he also created several holiday-themed illustrations for Zonneschijn's annual Christmas books. Pieck could completely immerse himself into a world of childish wonder. He loved drawing castles, dark woods, giants, gnomes, witches, kings, princes, princesses and dragons. The man illustrated two books about mythological stories, namely C. van der Horst's 'Het Boek der Helden' (1929) and A. van Hamel's 'De Tuin Der Goden' (1940/1947).

However, his most famous illustration work was done for 'Grimm's Fairy Tales' (1940) and 'Arabian Nights' (1943-1956). For the latter monumental work Pieck spent six weeks in Morocco to sketch local buildings and people to evoke a convincing Middle Eastern setting. Even though he was hardly the first to illustrate these classic stories, Pieck still managed to give them a certain unique feel which looks as if it was all actually created "once upon a time, a long time ago." In 1974 Pieck published a small book named 'Klein Beeldverhaal van 1001 Nacht', presented as a picture story, but in reality just a compilation of previous Arabian Nights illustrations he made, accompanied by quotations from the original tales. The booklet was likely made for people who couldn't afford to buy all eight volumes of the original tales.

Illustration for Grimm's 'The Wishing-Table'.

De Efteling
His illustrations of Grimm's fairy tales directly led to Pieck's most famous contribution to Dutch popular culture: theme park De Efteling. In the early 1950s he was asked to make designs for a fairy tale forest set in Kaatsheuvel. At first he wasn't interested, since he assumed it would merely be a couple of cardboard sets. When the organizers convinced him they would build actual houses based on his designs, the artist eventually opened up to the idea. On 31 May 1952 the theme park Efteling opened in the Dutch town Kaatsheuvel in North Brabant. Pieck designed all the houses, buildings and animatronic inhabitants of the fairy tale forest, including Little Red Riding Hood at her grandma's house, Sleeping Beauty's castle, Frau Holle's well and Hansel and Gretel's gingerbread house. Lesser known tales like 'The Six Servants' were also included. The long necked servant Langnek is still the park's mascot, along with Pardoes the jester, designed by Henny Knoet in 1989. As the park grew, Pieck gave other fairy tales a spot too, some by authors whom he never had illustrated, like Charles Perrault, Hans Christian Andersen and the Belgian queen Fabiola. More general fantastical creatures and places like gnomes, trolls, a dragon and a haunted castle were added as well.

Pieck was responsible for giving basically every object in De Efteling, from the water fountains to the trash bins, his artistic touch. He wasn't too timid to remind the architects to build things as crooked as depicted in his designs. Some of the builders were given a little alcohol beforehand, while Pieck once even demanded a freshly built chimney to be knocked a bit more slant. It gave him the nickname “the mild dictator”, but all was forgiven when De Efteling effectively became a huge success. Today it's still the biggest and most visited theme park of the Benelux. An often repeated story claims that Walt Disney once visited it to seek out inspiration for his own theme park Disneyland (1955), but this has been debunked as an urban legend. Pieck himself, however, visited De Efteling on a weekly basis. One of its squares has been named after him and harbours a carrousel he used to ride on in his youth. The park owners were able to buy the original ride, restore it and put it in the park.

In 1972 another attraction designed by Pieck opened its doors: the Autotron in Drunen. The place was created to exhibit old-timer cars in a aesthetically fitting location. Even though he didn't like cars, he still enjoyed designing the entire building in his signature style. The Autotron still exists today, but the car collection has moved to Rosmalen. The original building in Drunen is nowadays named De Voorste Venne.

Schrijvende Kabouter by Anton Pieck
Cover illustration for the book 'Sprookjes van de Efteling'. 

Anton Pieck was already extraordinarily popular during his lifetime. From 1938 on he started designing Christmas cards for the children's benefit organization Voor Het Kind. They were a success in his home country, but also huge bestsellers in the United States. Soon his illustrations and paintings were used to decorate greeting cards, calendars and puzzles. It made him more famous and beloved with general audiences. Oddly enough, Pieck's admirers aren't just comprised of senior citizens, but also people too young to have actually experienced the time periods Pieck evoked in his art. The majority don't even live in old-fashioned towns, close to nature. Yet Pieck's cosy and nostalgic drawings appeal to people sentimental for the "good old days". His theme park De Efteling and the Autotron museum make it able to visit Pieck's world in real life, which might also explain his popularity. In 2004 Anton Pieck was voted to the 81th place during the election of "The Greatest Dutchman", a sure sign of his enduring status as an audience favorite. 

Artwork by Anton Pieck
Artwork by Anton Pieck. 

Despite his popularity with general audiences, Pieck was and still is often derided by art critics and people with sophisticated taste. They regard his work as petty, corny and sentimental kitsch, with De Efteling as a triumph of mediocrity. It doesn't help much that Pieck had no artistic pretence other than delivering fine craftmanship. He was an unapologetic Romanticist when this was considered to be highly square and conventional. In the same way Pieck was never a graphic innovator. He had no interest in any of the more groundbreaking art movements of his own time period. His work is additionally devoid of any message, controversy or personal drama. Pieck never even made an actual self-portrait. The commercialization of his work naturally did his public image little good. When the Dutch newspaper HP/De Tijd organized a parody of "The Greatest Dutchman" in 2004 called "The Worst Dutchman",  Pieck was one of their 100 nominees, though he was never voted into the final list.

'Het Wilde Meisje'.

Still, Pieck merely wanted to draw and paint for his own enjoyment. As he pointed out: many artists in previous centuries just wanted to create fine work, unaware that it would once be judged as "art". He didn't care what critics said and just worked day in, day out. By being so dedicated to one passion he led a quiet and productive life. As polarizing as his work can be to some, nobody can deny he was a gifted artist whose recognizable style has practically become an eponym: "Pieckian". Some of his artworks even can be said to have some historical importance, as Pieck sketched many streets, villages, cities and landscapes before modernization changed them forever. And while his work lacked socially conscious messages, Pieck did put his talent to good use during World War II. He helped out the resistance by counterfeiting official documents to mislead the Nazi authorities. He did his job so well that many were fooled and those who survived the war even had trouble convincing officials that these papers were faked. Pieck also helped Jewish refugees hide in his home. He had the audacity to refuse joining the Nazi-controlled Kulturkammer, even though many artists were forced to become a member of this art group. Pieck's brother Henri was directly involved with the Dutch resistance and therefore sent off to concentration camp Buchenwald, though he luckily survived.

After World War II, Anton Pieck was decorated as a Knight (1960) and an Officer (1980) in the Order of Orange-Nassau for his brave and noble accomplishments for the Dutch resistance. The veteran received other honours too. In 1977 he was asked to design an official stamp for the Dutch postal office. In 1983 a bronze statue of his head was unveiled in the town Overveen and a year later he received his own museum in the village Hattem. 

from Zonneschijn, by Anton Pieck
Carnival scene illustration for the magazine Zonneschijn. 

Legacy and influence
Anton Pieck lived a long and productive career, literally working until the day he died, in 1987. Today, his illustrations remain popular with audiences, while the Efteling theme park still attracts thousands of visitors to this day. His books and art keep being reprinted. Among his notable admirers are Felix Timmermans, Willy Vandersteen, Jacques Laudy, Dick Bruna, Adolf Melchior, Marten Toonder, Lies Veenhoven and the British illustrator Pat Cooke. In 1973 the Dutch poet Drs. P (who once wrote the comic strip 'Dan Teal' for Johnn Bakker) wrote a poetic song named 'Winterdorp' (1973), in which he pays homage to Pieck's art. Seeing that Drs. P was quite old-fashioned himself, the admiration was understandable. On the occasion of Pieck's passing Belgian poets Bert Peleman and Anton van Wilderode both wrote an 'in memoriam' to him. Last but not least, Anton Pieck also had a cameo in Willy Vandersteen's comic series 'Suske en Wiske'. In the album 'De Belhamel Bende' (1982) he is pictured behind his easle, drawn by Paul Geerts.

Anton Pieck with Willy Vandersteen, looking at the Suske & Wiske album 'De Efteling-Elfjes'.

Series and books by Anton Pieck you can order today:


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