Johan Abeling is a Dutch artist who paints hazy landscapes that express a singularly sensitive quality within the realm of realism. His style is highly recognizable, making his subject matter uniquely his own. He handles both oils and acrylics with equal expertise depending on the composition; misty landscapes with lots of sky ask for slow-drying oils that allow subtle gradations created in the sfumato technique, while more detailed compositions, such as brickwork, lend themselves more to fast-drying acrylics. Usually viewers cannot tell which medium has been used as the results are indistinguishable and equally striking.
Abeling grew up in a small village in the northeasternmost province of the Netherlands called Groningen, a flat geographic area mostly below sea-level with a lengthy coastline bordering the Wadden Sea. Most of his landscapes feature this region in all of its stark glory. His exceptional landscapes show his heritage, his personality, and his spirit — and his artistic trajectory is no less admirable.
Growing up in a working-class environment, Abeling did not come across painting, music, and theater until late adolescence when a friend introduced him to a wide range of artistic expressions. This discovery of the arts, combined with not having a clear idea regarding a future profession and his penchant to go against traditional societal norms made him want to become an artist. His parents did not approve — they thought most artists were paupers and never-do-wells. After lengthy negotiations they conceded he could attend art school as long as he got certified as a teacher so he could have a regular income. Abeling applied and got admitted to the Academie Minerva in Groningen, one of the last remaining bastions of traditional representation and skill-based techniques in the 1970s, an era when modernistic and abstract expression was the trend and the glorious tradition of Dutch realism was being scorned and discarded.
Abeling maintains that his years at the academy (1972–1978) formed the solid foundation of his artistic career, describing himself as a passionate art student who “soaked up every single bit of knowledge and training like a sponge.” Not only did he learn excellent drawing and painting techniques, but was lucky enough to be taught and inspired by great teachers, such as Wout Muller, Matthijs Röling, and Barend Blankert, artists who stood at the forefront of a new Dutch art trend called Northern Realism.
After receiving his degree and fulfilling the then mandatory military service, Abeling started participating in exhibitions. He was immediately invited to become part of a renowned art gallery in Amsterdam that exclusively focused on realism. This solidified his art career with regular sales, name recognition, and even the opportunity to show at Art Basel in Switzerland, in 1984.
However, after decades of success, Abeling felt deeply fatigued and confined. The pressure to perform with a commercial mindset, the gallery’s limiting restrictions, and the collapse of the art market led him to leave the gallery after 29 years. Artist friends told him he was foolish to depart, warned him he would undoubtedly fail, he was shunned and even lost friendships and contacts. Nevertheless he followed his heart — he craved more freedom and independence, he wanted to spread his wings and explore new horizons.
Abeling knew his artwork was good and well-received, so at the age of 60 he restarted his career from zero; he built a website and started thinking about his message to the world, the deeper meaning behind his paintings, and where to go next. Facebook helped him to connect with likeminded artists and presented new opportunities, including an invitation from an important NYC art dealer to participate in a group exhibition showing up-and-coming realist and hyperrealist artists. This opened up the doors to the international art market that eventually led him to be represented by a gallery in San Francisco as well as a gallery in London.
Abeling says, “Selling is fun, indeed it’s essential to live, but it’s more important to be appreciated. I don’t lose any sleep over sales, I think it’s more important for me to know where I am at the moment, it’s a good place to be at the age of 70.” As an artist he currently feels at his pinnacle. By nature he is a climber, so he still wonders where this path will lead and how long he’ll be able to continue climbing — he says, “There’s a fine line between being a successful artist and a pathetic has-been.” At present he’s quite satisfied with what he has achieved on his own over the past decade. Despite the traumatic crossroads, scary decisions, and the loss of people he had considered friends, he has managed to carve out a new path for himself. Ever since he took that jump into the unknown he has felt the joy and satisfaction of being a free, independent artist.
His landscapes are born from his personality — he’s the quintessential unruffled Dutchman firmly grounded in reality, failing to conceal his romantic nature underneath delicate brushstrokes. In his paintings he decides what goes into them and what is left out, without any preconceived notion, using basic reference photos and his personal narrative. In the studio he continuously questions himself, adjusting to what he is capable of technically using the materials at his disposition. He paints the landscapes of his childhood, the countryside where he grew up, where he played with his friends — the flat Dutch scenery with trees and coastal dunes where he still lives.
Abeling prefers painting lush summer landscapes because they lend themselves to a more expressive color palette. Sporadically a winter landscape will appear, in which he always takes care to avoid the kitschy look so often found in paintings featuring snow. The stately grace of his tall trees, the enigmatic atmosphere, the softly rustling leaves, and the myriad of delicate details show his love of nature. In his paintings he seeks to convey a certain tension, the main idea being that his scenes aren’t restricted because there’s always something mysterious and unknown behind the trees, the gate, a dune, where one could wander off to.
Many of his landscapes feature an old square house that keeps on appearing in different perspectives and guises. He discovered this building thirty years ago at an old gas factory, it’s still standing today but is sandwiched between new construction. It’s his house — it appears in his paintings time and again set within imagined landscapes. This delightful house holds a certain mood, a vague feeling of pleasant isolation. Abeling’s paintings are always devoid of human or animal figures, yet their solitude isn’t disagreeable, it’s more akin to a welcome respite.
Abeling’s paintings often include weather-beaten fences or solitary wooden posts like those found in the dunes of the Dutch Wadden Islands placed there to detect changes in the coastline. His ramshackle fences are easy to pass, always inviting the viewer to question what lies beyond. He revisits certain subject matter time and again, presenting it under a different guise, from a changed perspective, or set in another season.
He says, “You have to be able to walk into the painting in your mind, go yonder, ask yourself what’s there?” It’s certainly an analogy of his life and career — he has gone further than he ever expected, always looking beyond the safety of preconceived limits. He’s still eager to see what awaits him beyond any determined expectations of what his artistic path should be; the ingredient of curiosity is both part of his paintings as well as his outlook on life.
Whether he paints trees, dunes, grassland, or solitary buildings, Abeling’s landscapes are undeniably recognizable as his. They exude a luxurious sense of peaceful solitude, offering a welcome moment of stillness, of serene contemplation, and indeed make us wonder about what lies beyond our immediate view. While Abeling’s landscapes are typically Dutch, they still present a universal sense of the wholesome wellbeing offered by nature’s tranquility, which explains their appeal beyond the borders of his native country.
Abeling’s studio is located at home where he shares a large attic space with his wife Hedy, a ceramic artist. They are currently working on their first project together, a two-person exhibition that will be held in autumn 2024 through spring 2025. To him it feels like coming full circle, as the exhibition will take place at the Ter Apel Monastery Museum, a historic abbey built in 1465, a place where he used to play as a child and which regularly appears in his paintings. But before that, he will be exhibiting at the Musiom in Amersfoort, the Netherlands, from January 5th through the middle of April, 2024.
Abeling’s landscapes are truly exquisite, both technically and esthetically, but more importantly, they touch the sensitive viewer on an emotional level. For me personally, Abeling’s paintings make me feel good; they are a deep soothing breath that calms the high-paced rush of contemporary life and reminds me of nature’s beautiful restorative powers and the sheer luxury of gentle solitude.