PhotoLexicon, Volume 4, nr. 6 (March 1987) (en)

Johannes Egenberger

Ingeborg Th. Leijerzapf


Johannes Egenberger was an artist, the director of the Minerva Academy, and a photographer, who played a prominent and stimulating role in the art world of Groningen for thirty-six years. During the 1860s, Egenberger was the ‘court photographer’ of Groningen’s well-to-do citizenry, and especially numerous professors at the University of Groningen.




Joannes Henricus Egenberger is born on 28 April as the son of Constant Egenberger, a captain in the infantry stationed at Arnhem, and Hendrica van Reeken.

Ca. 1838-‘40

Egenberger begins his training with his uncle, Ludovicus Henricus de Fontenay, a Belgian miniature painter. De Fontenay is married to Constance Egenberger, a sister of Egenberger’s father.


Egenberger continues his studies at the Koninklijke Academie (‘Royal Academy’) in Amsterdam under the instruction of the historical painter J.W. Pieneman.


Following the academy, Egenberger heads for Paris for an unspecified period of time. In the 1850s, he works for a while as a painter with Barend Wijnveld Jr. Together the two men paint the most important part of the ‘Historic Gallery’ for the Gemeentelijk Museum (‘Municipal Museum’, today’s Stedelijk Museum) in Amsterdam, commissioned by J. de Vos Jzn.: a cycle that encompasses the entire national history of the Netherlands starting in the year 40 A.D. to 1861. One of the best-known paintings from this cycle is the Heldendood van Jan van Schaffelaar (‘Heroic Death of Jan van Schaffelaar’). In 1854, Egenberger and Wijnveld paint a large history piece for the Haarlem City Hall, entitled Kenau Simons Hasselaar op de wallen van Haarlem (‘Kenau Simons Hasselaar on the Dockside of Haarlem’, today in the Frans Hals Museum). Egenberger teaches for several years at the Royal Academy in Amsterdam.


The managing board of the ‘Academie van Beeldende Kunsten en Zeevaartkunde Minerva’ (‘Minerva Academy of Visual Arts and Nautical Science’) has Egenberger come to Groningen to take over the running of the institute as its ‘directeurhoofdonderwijzer’ (‘director headmaster’). Egenberger teaches drawing, painting, and sculptural modelling. Among his pupils is H.W. Mesdag. From 1861 to 1866, Mesdag will sit on the managing board of ‘Minerva’.


Egenberger has discovered an interest in photography. In December, he requests a permit from the Groningen city council to build a photography studio in the ‘Garden of Gerrink’, outside the Herepoort, on the Buitencingel or Singelweg (later the Stationsweg). He wants to build a wooden structure with two floors at this location, with a living room and kitchen downstairs, and a studio upstairs. The permit is granted under the stipulation that the ground floor is built in stone.


On 17 January, Egenberger opens his studio. He initially continues working at the academy. In March, he leaves his home in the Oude Kijk on ‘t Jatstraat, adjacent to the academy, and moves into his studio. In November, Egenberger submits and receives his resignation at the academy. He plans to devote all of his time to photography. Egenberger is commissioned to make portraits of twenty-two professors in Groningen, to be published as an album, entitled Professores Academiae Groningae, by the bookseller J. B. Wolters, in commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the University of Groningen. In December, a photography studio opens in Leeuwarden at Groot Schavernek E 79, to which Johannes Egenberger’s name is connected. This studio is managed by Jan Hoen, the fiancé of Egenberger’s niece (or cousin?), Louise de Fontenay. As of 25 November, the following individuals are registered at Groot Schavernek address: Jan Hoen, Louise de Fontenay, her mother Constance de Fontenay-Egenberger, and Ludwig Stütting, a ‘photografist’ originating from Eberfeld, Germany.


In April, Egenberger asks the managing board of the Minerva Academy to return to the academy in his previous function. He is hired once again, on the condition that he returns to his teaching with the same commitment as during his previous years at the academy. Egenberger never stops with photography: he continues taking portrait photos. On 21 April, Jan Hoen and Louise de Fontenay marry. In the marriage certificate, Jan Hoen’s profession is stated as a ‘photografist’. In May, the business partnership between Egenberger and Jan Hoen is dissolved. The photography studio ‘Egenberger & Co’ continues to operate, probably until the end of the year. Ludwig Stütting departs in October. Jan Hoen leaves in January 1866, together with his wife and mother-in-law.


Egenberger submits photos to a photo exhibition in the academy building in Groningen. His photos arrive too late, however, and are consequently ineligible for being judged.


In commemoration of the Battle at Heiligerlee in 1568, a competition is organised for the design of a monument. The jury selects Egenberger’s entry as the winning design: a truncated pyramid with an urn on top. In a token of appreciation, His Majesty Willem III awards him with the ‘Ridderkruis van de Eikenkroon’ (‘Knight’s Order of the Oak Crown’). Egenberger’s design is executed by J. Geefs, a sculptor in Antwerp, and unveiled in 1870.


The painting of history pieces is now a thing of the past for Egenberger. He devotes his time entirely to portrait painting.


Egenberger resigns as director of the Minerva Academy.


Egenberger dies in Utrecht on 14 May.


In the year he died, Johannes Egenberger was described by J.A. Feith, a fellow citizen of Groningen, as ‘a gentleman, outside and inside’. It was not so much his achievements in painting that Feith was praising, but rather what he had done for the city of Groningen. Egenberger had revitalised and stimulated art education in Groningen through his inspired running of the art academy as well as his commitment to the art-loving organisation Pictura. Egenberger was always involved in the organising of historical processions, preparations for exhibitions, and the evaluation of selected improvements to the city. Amidst all of this praise, however, Feith neglects any mention of his photography.

Egenberger is one of many painters who ‘converted’ to photography in the middle of the nineteenth century. Nothing is known regarding the reasons for this changeover, no more than why he later returned to the academy and painting. What is certain is that history painting—Egenberger’s main specialty besides portrait painting—no longer enjoyed the tremendous popularity it once had. His choice could very well have been determined by the difficult economic position of portrait artists in this period, stemming from the intense competition brought about by photography. His salary at the academy, moreover, provided only a meagre income. In addition to these economic motives, it is equally conceivable that the appeal of the photographic medium—its modernity, but also its more enigmatic aspects—was a pivotal reason for his switching to a new occupation.

Egenberger began his education in painting and drawing at the studio of a miniature painter in the very years that the invention of photography became known to the public. It is highly unlikely he was unaware of photography’s rise, especially as this created quite a stir among portrait painters working for the general public, a group that as well included miniature painters. In the aftermath of his training, however, Egenberger chose for an entirely different direction in painting, under the inspirational direction of J.W. Pieneman: history painting. Egenberger embraced this genre with a passion, with nothing to indicate he would one day turn to photography.

Despite his early successes in painting, particularly working in collaboration with Barend Wijnveld, Egenberger never specifically manifested himself as a painter. His pedagogical talents led him to become increasingly involved in education. He had apparently acquired a reputation that was so superior in this area, that the managing board of the Minerva Academy in Groningen invited him to take over the running of the academy.

Egenberger’s request for a building permit in December 1863 to erect a photographic studio was what first betrayed his affinity for photography. Within a month, he had opened his new studio. ‘A free-standing, spacious, tastefully furnished studio, in which the full light, artistic endeavour and talented hands work together to create something good, something beautiful’, as it was reported in the Groninger Courant of 17 January 1864. Egenberger’s qualities as a photographer were praised one month later in the same newspaper: above all, the composition, tonality, poses, expression, and the decor were cited as strong points.

On 11 January 1865, Egenberger placed an advertisement in the Groninger Courant that one could order all kinds of photography from him, including ‘microscopic portraits, coloured watercolour photographs’. However, the carte-de-visite portraits he produced, including the portraits of the professors taken for the album Professores academiae Groningae—all of which were albumen prints—are the only evidence of his ability. Like most of the portrait photographers of his day, Egenberger’s subjects were shot full-length, with painted backgrounds and studio furnishings. Yet he also regularly worked with the technique of vignetting: he placed a vignette on the camera at a certain distance from the lens, through which he photographed the seated model. The vignette was typically a square piece of cardboard or metal with a hole in it: the edges of the hole were either frayed or jagged. The result of photographing through a vignette was a portrait bust with a fading background that gradually becomes neutral. John Mayall, an American daguerreotypist living in London, introduced the vignetted portrait in 1851 at the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in the British capital.

Egenberger’s portraits of the Groningen professors are designed just as carte-de-visite portraits, both vignetted and in full-length. His portraits are always skilfully composed in an orderly manner, with good lighting and sharply depicted. At the same time, however, the poses reveal little variation or daring.

As an artist, as the director and headmaster of the Minerva Academy, and as a photographer, Egenberger was the prototype of a local authority who exercised significant influence on the art scene of his city. One can compare him with Jacob Olie in Amsterdam: an active, but modest individual, not a great artist, but highly respected for his taste and his artisanal qualities. As a portraitist, he was the equivalent in Groningen to the best photographers of his day, and especially with those portraitists in other cities who also took portraits of university professors, such as Johan H. Hoffmeister, Bernard Bruining, and Jan Goedeljee in Leiden, and Henri Pronk in Utrecht. It is no coincidence that the better photographers in these early decades of photographic history were—like Egenberger—artists that had started out with a thorough traditional training. Collectively, they were responsible for the highly respectable level of portrait photography in the Netherlands during this period.


Secondary bibliography

J.A. Feith, J.H. Egenberger, in Groningsche Volksalmanak (over het jaar 1897), Groningen 1898, p. 90-95.

A.T. Schuitema Meyer, Fotografen in het 19e eeuwse Groningen, in Groningse Volksalmanak (over het jaar 1960), Groningen 1961, p. 139-143, 146, 151.

Geraldine Norman (ed.), Marius, Dutch painters of the 19th century, England (Antique Collectors’ Club) 1973, p. 36, 38.

W. Dolk, Leeuwarden gephotographeerd, Leeuwarden (De Tille) z.j. (ca. 1975), ongepagineerd.

W.F. Renaud, Een oudvaderlandse Kiekvogel, in Bijdragen en Mededelingen van het Rijksmuseum voor Volkskunde ‘Het Nederlands Openluchtmuseum’ 41 (1978) 1, p. 1-5.

Ingeborg Th. Leijerzapf (red.), Fotografie in Nederland 1839-1920, Den Haag (Staatsuitgeverij) 1978.

Pieter A. Scheen, Lexicon Nederlandse beeldende kunstenaars 1750-1880, Den Haag (Pieter A. Scheen bv) 1981, p. 134.


1869 (g) Groningen, Academiegebouw, Internationale tentoonstelling van ‘photografiën, natuurzelfdruk en kleurendruk’.


Groningen, Gemeentearchief.

Assen, Drents Museum, drs. J J . Hey, documentatie.

Leiden, Prentenkabinet, bibliotheek en documentatiebestand (o.a. ongepubliceerd werkstuk van Reina de Vries).


Assen, Drents Museum.

Den Haag, Rijksdienst Beeldende Kunst (coll. Hartkamp).

Groningen, Gemeentearchief.

Groningen, Rijksarchief.

Groningen, Universiteitsmuseum.

Leiden, Prentenkabinet van de Rijksuniversiteit.