A Painter's Love for Animals and History

Rien Poortvliet, a self-taught artist and author of many books, says his skill is like riding a bicycle. INTERVIEW WITH A DUTCH ARTIST

`MY father wanted me to learn a decent profession,'' Rien Poortvliet recalls, ``so I started in advertising. Drawing family scenes for soap companies.'' But advertising was only a brief stop in his career as an artist. The author and painter, whose most famous work thus far is ``Gnomes'' (at least on this side of the Atlantic) is touring, talking up his Christmas book for this season ``The Book of Sandman,'' which he conceived and illustrated. The text is by his long-time friend Wil Huygen, who also worked on ``Gnomes.''

Mr. Poortvliet never went to art school. ``I don't regret that. In art school you learn very much from other people. But you also learn what they think is good. I taught myself, and I am my own critic.''

The theory that you can't do a good job teaching yourself is pretty completely refuted by the final product of Poortvliet's autodidacticism. His painting is as skilled and accomplished as any painter, certainly any illustrator in the world today. And more than that, it does not, as he predicted, reflect the influences of anyone but himself.

His huge following in Europe is doubled by readers in this country in the healthy and continuing sales of most of his 12 books. His best book, in my opinion, ``The Forest'' (also from publisher Harry Abrams) continues to sell well and contains some of his most skillful renderings of forest animals and scenery. It may well be the best book of its kind.

Poortvliet is a large man, with gray hair and a short beard, and the expressive hands of an artist. But on those hands are the calluses of a man who likes to work around the house and take care of his animals.

``Animals are what I love,'' he says. ``Animals and history. The history of my people.''

He works in Soest, a village 30 miles southeast of Amsterdam, where he lives with his wife and their collection of animals, rabbits, dogs, cats, chickens, and some farm stock. Here he paints daily in his own self-taught style.

``I paint quickly,'' he says. ``People tell me I should slow down. But the speed is like the speed at which you write your own signature. You have a certain speed at which you move the pen and that is as much as the style itself.'' Besides, he is full of ideas. And there just isn't enough time to get all the ideas on paper. ``I am pregnant all the time,'' he says, pointing to his head, with a smile.

He is currently working on another history of daily life of common people in the 1500s and 1600s.

There's only one painting medium for anyone who wants to work fast and prolifically - watercolor. ``Sometimes with much water. Sometimes with a very dry brush. Sometimes with a little spit.''

Poortvliet's animals are richly rendered. Fur and feather are soft, deep, and plush. The trompe l'oeil, accomplished with pigments mixed in water, of a deer peering through the snow-flecked winter forest is a mastery of the medium. The deer is warm and dark, breathing steam in the frigid air. The forest is infinite, cold, and silent.

``I have to live here in the country,'' the artist says, ``here where I can hear the owls at night. Where I can see the rabbits in the winter, trembling, shivering, pale, and frightened.''

Poortvliet's other great interest is telling the story of his family, a story he has chronicled as far back as his great-great-grandfather. His book, ``My Father's House,'' (reviewed here last year) combines richly colored paintings and finely detailed drawings, somewhat similar to Eric Sloane's work. It traces his unremarkable progenitors with remarkable explication, re-creating their world in its simplicity and hardships, its tragedies and joys. There are no artists in the previous generations at all. Poortvliet's father was a plasterer.

In fact, his family wasn't sure if they trusted artists. ``My family thought that artists were, you know, a little bit dangerous, all those naked women, all that drinking all night.''

And his father's desire that he get a serious line of work was further complicated by World War II. From the age of seven to the age of 12, his life was disrupted by the shortages and violence of the war. ``It's not that my father wouldn't buy me pencils and paper. There were no pencils to be bought.''

He spent two years in the Dutch navy as soon as he was old enough and visited America. ``What I learned about America,'' he says gently, ``was that I wanted to go home.''

His gravitation toward books resulted from his desire to paint to tell a story. ``Gnomes'' was his first success. In this country it was on the New York Times bestseller list for several months. But, says Poortvliet, grimacing in his inability to understand the American mind, this highly imaginative book was placed by the editors on the nonfiction list. ``Why?'' he asks, ``Do they think there really are gnomes?''

He is a deeply religious man, proudest of his book about the life of Jesus, ``He Was One of Us,'' published in l984. And, equally devoted to tradition, he has no love for modernist trends in art. ``In Holland, the government pays people to be artists, no matter what they paint. We have warehouses of modern art. Piled up to here,'' he says, a hand held over his head.

His own talent is a ``gift of God.'' But he is not content with such a brief attribution. Being an artist is like being ``the only person in the village who can ride a bicycle. People ask you how you do it. All you can do is show them how it's done. You cannot tell them.''

And his own skills are limited to what his gift is. ``I can paint for you any animal you want, including humans. I can paint an elephant from underneath, as if it were walking on a plate of glass above us. I have never seen this, but I can paint it. But, if you ask me to paint the dashboard of my Volkswagen, I would have to go out and look at it in the yard.''

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