Harm Kamerlingh Onnes, born in 1893, was best known for his anecdotal, witty paintings, true character sketches from everyday life. He was a versatile artist who, in addition to paintings, also designed monumental stained glass windows and made tile panels and ceramic objects. His extensive body of work spans almost the entire 20th century - he was 93 years old.
Kamerlingh Onnes grew up in an intellectual and artistic environment in Leiden. After a number of years studying architecture at the Polytechnic School in Delft, his father Menso had chosen painting. Menso was a celebrated artist and known for his still lifes - especially subdued floral still lifes in watercolor - and portraits. He shared a studio with his brother-in-law, Floris Verster from The Hague. Through Uncle Heike - the physicist who received the Nobel Prize in 1913 - Harm met famous physicists such as Paul Ehrenfest and Albert Einstein, who often visited their homes for a discussion or a musical evening. Harm inherited the musical talent from his mother. He played the piano and cello and even thought about making it his profession for a while. But it was Harm's father who gave his son permission in 1911 to develop as an artist. The condition was that Harm would not go to the academy. After all, his father had become a successful artist himself without an academy education. Harm did become a member of the Leiden art society De Kunst om De Kunst, where drawing was done twice a week based on a model. Here he met other artists and became friends with the architect J.J.P. Old.
Harm Kamerlingh Onnes started working in a naturalistic style; his still lifes and landscapes are reminiscent of those of his uncle Floris and his father. But he was also open to the latest developments in painting. In 1916 he met Theo van Doesburgh, well-known artist of De Stijl and co-founder of the Leiden artists' association De Sphinx. Harm took part in exhibitions by De Sphinx, which were very innovative in their Pointillism and Expressionism and received praise from critics. Until 1925 he would continue to experiment with different styles. During this time he was also involved in a renovation project for the villa Aldegonda in Katwijk aan Zee by his father Menso, who would retain his interest in architecture throughout his life. Menso was asked by the owner of the villa to give some ideas for a different view. These ideas were developed by the famous Style architect J.J.P Oud, friend of Harm. Harm himself was also involved in the project by his father and so Villa Aldegonda became an example of an almost seamless collaboration between different artists, an important ideal within De Stijl. Influenced by Van Doesburgh, Kamerlingh Onnes also began to stylize and simplify his performances at the time. Harm also briefly undergoes the influence of Bart van der Leck, who can be seen in the flatness of his representations and the geometry of shapes. In the designs for the abstract stained glass windows that he made for Holiday home De Vonk in Noordwijk - designed by J.J.P. Oud - the influence of Van Der Leck is clearly visible.
In 1923 Harm made a trip to Asia with his uncle Dolf, visiting the Dutch East Indies, China and Japan. This journey would determine the direction Kamerlingh Onnes would take. He was extremely fascinated with observing people and their behavior. This was evident from the letters - illustrated with sketches - that he sent home, and his drawings of the time are also often characterized by amusing irony. Once back in the Netherlands, Kamerlingh Onnes noticed that he found the human motif much more important than the 'shape' of a painting. Partly due to a visit to Piet Mondriaan's studio, he realized that abstract art was not for him and came to a realistic style.
From 1925 his work becomes exclusively figurative and the everyday reality of his immediate environment becomes his subject. Harm Kamerlingh Onnes discovers his talent as a storyteller, who constantly makes observations from a different point of view, be it a landscape, still life, portrait or narrative genre. His view of everyday life was open-minded and often surrounded with mild ridicule, and he captures his characters on the canvas with an eye for detail and perspective. The humor and irony he uses compels the viewer to extract the story from the paintings. For an interview in NRC in 1947, he would have been asked which subjects attracted him the most. His answer was: 'Mainly landscape, sometimes portrait, also flowers, which my wife successfully arranges, and then also genre work as I see the people around me. Actually, I could call these little pantomimes.'
During the 1930s Kamerlingh Onnes would further expand and perfect the expression and technique of his 'pantomimes'. During his life he received almost exclusively positive criticism for it. After the war, he continued on the same path. The battle that erupted between figurative and abstract art passed him by. His work cannot be classified in a style. He made his own style and typed it with the words: 'I made what I liked.' In doing so he put things into perspective and was self-critical. A property that J.J.P. Oud was quoted in a speech for his 70th birthday in 1963. Oud spoke of his friend as 'one of those happy artists who go ahead and believe it. He belongs to that small gifted group of 'race painters' who enjoy their work and do it as it comes to mind. ' 'Whoever Harm Kamerlingh Onnes ran into, Van Der Leck, Picasso or Matisse, they were' encounters without consequences, because he remained Harm Kamerlingh Onnes '. Oud also thought it was 'heartwarming' that Kamerlingh Onnes did not exaggerate his prices so much, because he felt that everyone should have the opportunity to purchase art.
Kamerlingh Onnes' interest in ceramics was aroused during his tour of the Far East and later sparked when from 1933 he was asked by his uncle Hugo Tuthein Noltenius - a passionate hobbyist in ceramics - to participate in ceramic experiments. Together they kept 'ceramic diaries' for 50 years for color proofs of glaze and baking proofs. This created a new love, next to his painting, but with the same starting point: anecdotal and humorous. His hand-turned figurative sculptures would become his trademark. The boxes he made after 1936 show Chinese and Japanese travel memories.
From 1946 Kamerlingh Onnes had exhibitions every year at galleries in The Hague or Amsterdam, before that his work was only exhibited at the member exhibitions of the many artists' associations of which he was a member; St. Lucas and The Independents in Amsterdam, Pulchri in The Hague, Contour in Delft and the Voorschotense Kunstkring.
Until his death, Harm Kamerlingh Onnes remained a modest person who often dismissed his work as a joke or a joke. He had the special quality of making the ordinary something special.