strip for Ratio, by Peter Vos (1964)
Comic strip for Ratio (1964)

Peter Vos was a Dutch illustrator and graphic artist, best known for his detailed pen-and-ink drawings and watercolor paintings of birds. He also made many drawings of mythical creatures, metamorphoses and, erotic scenes, which were all characterized by a melancholic sense of humor. The artist had great powers of observation, and could depict the subtle characteristics and irregularities of his subjects. Vos even managed to capture a birds' personality, making it possible to discover which one had been his model. His favorite subject was the modest and non-pretentious sparrow, which maybe best reflected his own character. Peter Vos had no artistic pretenses. He drew because he had to, all the time. He also had no commercial purposes with his work. Whenever someone liked one of his drawings, he simply gave it away.

Petrus Antonius Carolus Augustinus Vos was born in Utrecht in 1935. His father Cornelis J. Vos was the driving force behind De Gemeenschap, a local magazine and publishing house for young Catholics. His mother Netty Hofland worked as a hatter for Gerzon. Father Vos had many acquaintances in artistic circles, and strongly encouraged his son to further develop his drawing talent. Vos quickly started making detailed drawings in his school notebooks. Among his main influences were classic masters like Rembrandt, Francisco de Goya, Diego Velásquez and Henri de Toulouse Lautrec. His first book was a series of portraits of his father, drawn as pastiches of the classic masters. Aptly titled 'Het eerste boek Vos' ("The First Book Vos", 1952), it was the first of many books he made with a print-run of one copy. Vos developed a lifelong fascination for Greek and Roman mythology during his education at the Sint Bonifatiuslyceum in Utrecht. Mythological stories, settings and creatures have remained an inspiration throughout his career.

Scheppingsverhaal by Peter Vos
Scheppingsverhaal

He enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts in Amsterdam in 1953, where the painter Otto de Kat and the graphic artist Kuno Brinks were among his teachers. Vos settled in the Dutch capital in the following year. Also in 1953, Het Spectrum published 'De kok van Marienbad', a poetry collection by Daan Zonderland and the first book with his illustrations. He started making illustrations for the Utrecht daily Het Centrum in 1956. Two years later, the paper also published his first and only actual comic strip, 'Sylvester en Sebastiaan' (1958-1959). Another strip by Vos is 'Meneer Miereneter' (around 1960), but it is unknown where or if it was published? Peter Vos became an illustrator and cartoonist for the student's magazine Propria Cures in 1957, and began his long association with the news weekly Vrij Nederland in 1959. He started out as the cartoonist for 'Vrij Blijvend', a parody column written by Rinus Ferdinandusse and Hugo Brandt Corstius. It marked the debut of  Vos' little lion character, an anthropomorphic representation of the Dutch man in his daily struggles. The character became the mascot of 'Terzijde', a section of oneliners by Toon Verhoeven, in 1965. Peter Vos continued to draw a lion for Vrij Nederland every week for 43 years, even after he had dropped his other commercial activities. He also made regular illustrations for the literary magazines Hollands Weekblad, Tirade and Maatstaf. In 1964, he also participated in the comics special of the literary monthly Ratio (November-December 1964), which also featured work by Rupert van der Linden, Guus Boissevain, Marten Toonder, Frank Lodeizen, Frits Müller, Wim Boost, Opland, Hugh Jans, Waldemar Post, Thé Tjong-Khing and Peter van Straaten.

Drawing for Vrij Nederland by Peter Vos
Lion with marabou (Vrij Nederland, around 2000)

Peter Vos made a great many book illustrations between 1953 and 2006, often with animal or fairy tale-related subjects. Early work included illustrations for more books of poetry by Daan Zonderland, a book with fables by Leo Vroman and several books of his friend Rinus Ferdinandusse. He also illustrated works by writers and essayists like Raoul Chapkis (Hugo Brandt Corstius), Paul Rodenko, Anton Koolhaas, Renate Rubinstein, Simon Carmiggelt, Koos van Zomeren and Rudy Kousbroek, as well as children's books by Paul Biegel ('De Twaalf Rovers', 1971) and Bouke Jagt ('De Pozzebokken', 1971). He also provided the illustrations for a 1969 Dutch reprint of George Orwell's 'Animal Farm'. Most notable were his detailed pen drawings for 'Sprookjes van de Lage Landen' (De Bezige Bij, 1972), a collection of fairy tales from the Low Countries, compiled by Eelke de Jong and Hans Sleutelaar. He additionally provided illustrations for the follow-ups, 'De onbekende lotgevallen van klein Duimpje en Hans & Grietje' (1973) and 'Nieuwe Sprookjes van de Lage Landen' (1974). Peter Vos' first solo book was 'Scheppingsverhaal' (Contact, 1966), featuring the artist's version of the Creation story, which he had made as a St. Nicholas present for this friend Mieke Heijbroek in 1959. A bestseller was his 'Beestenkwartet' (1970), a set of old maid game cards with drawings of imaginary animals from Dutch expressions.

Drawing by Peter Vos for Hollands Maandblad #293 (1972)
Drawing for Hollands Maandblad #293 (1972)

Overworked from his tour de force creating these fairy tale books, he hardly took any commercial assignments after the mid 1970s. He completely focused on personal projects, and spent many hours in the Amsterdam zoo Artis to study the birds. The results were collected in the booklet 'Een Studie in Grijs' (1980). He also made hundreds of bird drawings during his several trips to Spain and Eilat, Israel. Peter Vos' personal life and inner struggles were strongly represented in his more personal artworks. Already at a young age, he made several drawings at his father's deathbed. He later covered the separation from his first wife in a series of drawings he called the "depression series".

Artwork by Peter Vos

He regularly used birds as a metaphor in these private works. The Pulcinella, the buffoon from Italian puppetry with a nose like a bird's beak, had served as mascot and signature in his letters, sketches and other drawings since 1955. In letters to his lovers, Vos often drew the father-in-law figure as a marabou, a bird whose long beak resembled the pointed face of his late father. Furthermore, the many letters he wrote during his life, and even his school exams, were illustrated by drawings, stamp pastiches and very characteristic handwriting. In 1980 and 1982, Vos designed the annual children's stamps, followed by a series of summer stamps in 1984. Peter Vos' later life was troubled by bouts of depression and alcoholism. The artist had lost his father, mother and brother at a young age, and several subsequent break-ups and other setbacks took their toll. He made no secret of his drinking behaviour and even drank heavily during interviews. His moods changed along the day from shy and modest, over joyful and cunning to sad and verbally agressive. In this light it is interesting that one of his final projects was based on the metamorphoses from Ovid's poetry, in which a human transforms into a bird in a couple of sequential images.

Metamorphosis (2003) by Peter Vos
Metamorphosis (2003)

Peter Vos and Bouke Jagt won the "Zilveren Griffel" for their children's book 'De Pozzebokken' in 1972. He later received the "Golden Pencil" for his illustrations for Rudy Kousbroek's 'Lieve kinderen hoor mijn lied' (1980). Vos was also awarded the Jeanne Oosting Prize (1980), for artists active in Figurative Arts, and the Ton Smits Penning for his cartoons in 1994. Peter Vos was knighted in the Order of the Dutch Lion in 1996. He posthumously received the Maartenspenning for his merits for the city of Utrecht in 2011. The first expositions of his work were held in small venues in Amsterdam and Utrecht in 1958. Several expositions followed, including group shows with the Utrecht graphic collective De Luis, of which was a member in the 1960s and 1970s. When the artist turned 60 in 1995, a large overview exhibition was held in museum De Beyerd in Breda to wide media coverage. Another overview exhibition of work by Vos and his friend Charles Donker was held in the Centraal Museum in Utrecht in 2010. Vos was already suffering from cancer by then, and passed away shortly after the opening, on 6 November 2010.

Sparrows playing billiards in a letter to Renate Rubinstein (1967)
Sparrows playing billiards in a letter to Renate Rubinstein (1967)

Jan Piet Filedt and Eddy de Jongh posthumously compiled the book 'Peter Vos, Metamorfosen' (2013), which contained a great many of his artworks, to much critical acclaim. In 2017, the same authors also made a compilation of Peter Vos' correspondence under the title 'Peter Vos - Getekende brieven'. It featured letters from the period 1952-2005 to friends like Louis Andriessen, Rinus Ferdinandusse, Willem den Ouden, Karel van het Reve and Renate Rubinstein, lovers like Fritzi Harmsen van Beek and Saïda Lokhorst, and his son Sander Vos. A documentary called 'Peter Vos - Vogelparadijs' was made by director David de Jongh about his life and work, and broadcast on Dutch television on 1 May 2017. Peter Vos has served as an inspiration for artists like Peter van Straaten and Siegfried Woldhek. His son Sander Vos (1967) is active as a Dutch film editor.

Peter Vos

Peter Vos at RKD Monographs

Series en boeken door Peter Vos op voorraad in de Lambiek Webshop:

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