Anton van Wouw is considered the father of South African sculpture and is well known for his portraits of the Shangaan, the indigenous people who lived in southern Mozambique and in the Northern Transvaal or Limpopo province of South Africa. The original Shangaans took their name from the Zulu warrior Soshangane, and were once the rulers of the Gaza Empire. Van Wouw spent a great deal of his time in the wilderness and developed a great admiration for the Boer nation as well as other indigenous groups.
Born in a village near Utrecht in the Netherlands, van Wouw studied drawing and modelling at night classes from 1874 – 1889 in Rotterdam, soon discovering that his talents lay more towards modelling and sculpting. In 1890, after his studies were finished, van Wouw left the Netherlands to join his father who had emigrated to South Africa seven years previously.
After moving to Pretoria he had to wait another decade before receiving his first and most important commission. This came from the financier Sammy Marks, who asked the sculptor to create a monumental statue of Paul Kruger, renowned as the figurehead of the Boer Resistance against the British during the Second Boer War (1899 – 1902). This commission made his name, and thereafter he enjoyed continued success.
Anton Van Wouw working in his studio circa 1910.
Van Wouw's first solo exhibition of work was held in Pretoria in 1908, and in 1909 examples of his work were included in an exhibition at London's Fine Art Society. The renown and acclaim that he was already enjoying was further boosted by his masterpiece of 1912 – the Woman's Monument in Bloemfontein. In 1913, he was awarded the prestigious Order of Orange Nassau from the Dutch Government. His work is in a number of museum collections including Ashby’s Gallery, Cape Town, Durban Art Gallery and National Gallery of Cape Town.
Although van Wouw used foundries in the Netherlands and Italy, later in life he used Vignoli, a local foundry in Pretoria.
His home in Pretoria is now the Van Wouw Museum as well as a national monument.