Landscape, still-life and portrait painter, was born at 7 p.m. on 9 December 1779 at Einlage, Prussia, second of the 11 children of Abraham Janssen (1740-1808) and his second wife Catherine, née Ham (1756-1813). In 1807 he started on a trip to the United States, passing through Copenhagen, Lisbon and Boston before settling in Philadelphia. Janssen’s diary (ML), written in his native German, begins with this voyage. In it he recorded his travels, adventures, observations and friendships for the next 33 years, occasionally lapsing into English. It is possible that Janssen went to the United States to escape religious persecution as he initially worked as a farm labourer for a Mennonite preacher in Montgomery, Pennsylvania. After moving to Philadelphia he began to go to twice weekly drawing classes (at $13 a quarter) given by Signor Piesio Ancora ‘who comes from Rome’ (but who actually was a member of the School of Naples) and with whom he later lodged. Working occasionally as a sign-painter and glazier, Janssen was commissioned in June 1811 by the Quaker R. Smith to draw up two large plans for Smith’s proposed New Rome settlement 94 miles from Philadelphia. In 1814 he became one of the ‘volunteer Greys’, a troop formed after the English burned the city of Washington.
On 5 October 1815 Janssen boarded the George Washington to return to Germany. By July 1818 he was again in Hamburg. After visiting friends in Lébeck and Danzig, he left in October for a brief sojourn in Philadelphia. In November 1819 he sailed to Rio de Janeiro, where he stayed for the next twelve years. A romantic involvement in Brazil may partly explain his long stay there; a later reference in his diary to ‘love stealing his heart with a pair of black eyes’ suggests that this amorous interlude occurred in 1821. It also seems that he was in some way attached to the royal court of Dom Pedro, as his diary is filled with the gossip of the court and his residence in Brazil terminated only months before the enforced abdication of the Infante. The Mitchell Library has several sketches from his Brazilian period, notably Mr Georg [sic] Nailors House Botologo near Rio de Janeiro (1829) and The House of Mr Muttre (1827). At the end of his stay, wherever he travelled, Janssen recorded the names of friends and acquaintances in each place and various public events in which he was interested. The sole personal note from this period was to record the purchase of a painting by Guido (Reni) for $5. In October 1831 Janssen returned once more to the Eastern seaboard of the United States, staying at both Philadelphia and Baltimore and again visiting Signor Ancora. An undated panorama (ML) could be of either city. Soon afterwards he set off for India. After travelling for a short time he settled in Calcutta; a watercolour panorama and the ink and watercolour A Pepul Tree on Garden Rear of Road 1836 are in the Mitchell Library. It was in India that he sold his Guido for $350, possibly in order to settle his dispute with a shipping agent over his passage money of $400.
Janssen appears initially to have enjoyed British colonial life. He records his first earnings from a Mr Adams ‘for teaching his little daughter to draw’, and a commission (undescribed) from Sir Charles Grey, a judge of the Colonial Court with whom he soon became disenchanted due to Grey’s meanness over payment. Here Janssen attempted to improve his English by copying long extracts from the Calcutta newspapers, mainly about murder trials and bankruptcies, but his personal diary notes continue to be in German. From Calcutta he travelled to Singapore ( Singapore from on board the Sunken Ship Pacco 1837, ML) and Manila (sketchbook of Indian and Filipino costumes, ML).
In Manila the diary notes, briefly in English, give details of a commission and illustrate the difficulties of trying to earn a living as a painter at this time. Janssen wrote: ‘October 24th 1839 Padre Learma of the Binondo church ordered a painting 6 feet by 4.5 [182 × 134 cm] the subject was Voltaire and his disciples befor [sic] his judges vir [viz]: Christ—the Pope and the King of Spain containing above 40 figures: the Padre advanced me at different times up to [$]122 but before I could finish it Padre Learma fell into disgrace with the Archbishop and was sent into the convent of St Thomas: Wore [sic] I went to see him the 19th of June 1840 he told me that at present he had no command of any money that he would leave me the above advance and that perhaps the present padre of Binondo or the Archbishop would buy the picture but as these gentleman [sic] would not come to any terms I raffled the picture on the 24th of August 1840 the raffel [sic] consisted [of] 53 tickets at $10 each, was won by Sn—Maracaida’. Janssen then noted, ‘Recived [sic] of Don Matheas Vesmannes on account of the former Governor $100 of which I brought to Sydney 24 Dobloons’ but this may refer to another commission.
On 5 September 1840 he left Manila for Sydney in the Louisa Campbell , arriving on 5 December 1840. His diary indicates that he moved house frequently in the first three years; during 1842 43 he boarded for several months with Frederick Garlingand his family in Market Lane. In 1841 the Sydney Gazette commended ‘several beautiful specimens of landscape painting in watercolours’ by Janssen and remarked that he also excelled in portrait painting and miniatures on ivory (no surviving examples of his portraiture have been identified). His earliest dated Australian work is a view of Sydney Cove painted in 1842 (TMAG). An oil on canvas, this is distinguished by its pale blue and grey palette and a tonality which recreates Sydney as a Baltic seaport. It depicts a part of Sydney near Campbell’s wharves and shows the commercial rather than the leisurely face of the town, unlike its pendant, Sydney Harbour from Mrs Macquarie’s Chair (c.1842, AGSA).
Other Sydney views from the 1840s are Lyons Terrace 1844 (p.c.), Hunter Street Sydney 1845 (p.c.) and Oxford Street Sydney 1847 (ML), all watercolours with pen-and-ink. These show an exactness of detail and accuracy of perspective suggestive of a training in architectural draughtsmanship. Frequently they are coloured with the touches of indigo blue that Janssen used to highlight certain features.
As well as landscape and portraiture, Janssen painted contemporary events. Dr Lang Addressing the Legislative Council of New South Wales in 1844 (NLA) shows the controversial John Dunmore Lang making his speech on the separation of Port Phillip from New South Wales. In 1846 Janssen was involved in a scandal surrounding another painting of this type, The Opening of the Debate in the City Council on the Financial Estimate for 1846 . The Sydney Morning Heraldsarcastically applauded the artist (who is referred to as Jacob Tonson), ‘for a picture more expressive of all that is stupid and phlegmatic never came from the easel of a Dutch [sic] painter’. An uproar ensued and one councillor, Thomas Hyndes, physically attacked the reporter on the council steps. The Sydney Morning Heraldpublished an ‘apology’ a fortnight later which was almost as libellous as the original article, stating that Janssen had not wished to make the council appear ridiculous but had unfortunately done so, through incompetence it is implied. The picture was raffled among the 30 members of the council ‘with three dice, three throws each’ at a guinea per person. Its present location is not known.
In the late 1840s, perhaps in an effort to find a wider market, Janssen tried his hand at almost every possible kind of painting, executing and sometimes exhibiting still-life, marine, religious, genre and landscape works. Critical reaction, as a rule, was poor. About this time he completed a two-panel panorama of showing Sydney Harbour from Vaucluse (o/c, ML), a subject which he also painted on a single canvas. These and a View of Sydney Harbour from above Rose Bay 1850 , which incorporates and identifies his fellow-artist Conrad Martens sitting on a rock sketching the view, seem to have been private commissions, none being publicly exhibited or commented on in the press. A.B. Spark exhibited Janssen’s Election of the Village Magistrate at the 1849 Society for the Promotion of the Fine Arts in Australia Exhibition and he records visiting Janssen’s studio to inspect two paintings on 25 June 1850.
Towards the late 1840s Janssen may once again have attracted the patronage of the Church (this time the Anglican), since from 1848 to 1855 he painted a number of watercolour views of modest suburban churches: St Thomas’s at Enfield in 1848 (ML), St John’s at Ashfield in 1852 (p.c.) and St Mark’s at Darling Point in 1855 (p.c.). All are carefully detailed, strongly-coloured watercolours with a gentle, naive quality.
In 1849, at the age of 70, Janssen fell in love with a much younger woman whom he refers to in his diary as ‘Mrs L’. His friends did not approve of this attachment and quarrelled with him. Two letters in his diary to the solicitor Edwin Daintry (‘E.D.’) give details of the sad affair which, he wrote, destroyed his dreams so that he ‘wished to die but even that was denyd [sic]’. It was not until 30 July 1856, at the age of 77, that Jacob Janssen, ‘Portrait Painter’, died in his Sydney residence, 17 Domain Terrace, from ‘paralysis’. Rev. Charles Kemp conducted his funeral service in Camperdown Cemetery. After one brief period of notoriety, he seems to have been forgotten. No newspaper published an obituary.
Written by Candice Bruce.