European painters have long been captivated by the beauty of Indonesia. The stunning landscapes and rich colorful heritage have served as an inspiration for many renowned artists throughout history. In this article, Sake Santema from Indies Gallery presents a few works from his collection by Willem G Hofker, whose life and work became deeply intertwined with Indonesia. Hofker’s artistic journey led him to the archipelago, where he dedicated a significant portion of his life to capturing the diverse aspects of Indonesia through his art.

Willem G Hofker
Etching by Willem Hofker of a Balinese girl by candlelight, published in Amsterdam around the year 1948, courtesy of Indies Gallery

Early Life and Artistic Beginnings

Born in 1902, in The Hague, Netherlands, Hofker was already an accomplished draftsman at the age of twelve, and at the age of fifteen had decided that he no longer wished to pursue his school studies. He enrolled in the Hague Academy of Fine Arts, where he honed his skills and developed a keen interest in portraiture. Hofker was a rather unadventurous and cautious person but was lured by a proposal by one of his most important patrons, Jhr. J.E. Backer, the Amsterdam director of the powerful Koninklijke Paketvaart Maatschappij (KPM, Royal Packet Navigation Company).

Backer had commissioned Hofker to paint a large portrait of Queen Wilhelmina for the KPM Headquarters in Batavia (now Jakarta), and had proposed that Hofker deliver it in person, after which he could travel freely through the Indies with KPM, in return for fifty drawings or paintings of any Indonesian subject of his choice. These drawings would then be used to promote the growing tourist trade to Java and Bali.

Arrival in Indonesia

In 1938, Hofker arrived in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) with his wife Maria Hofker-Rueter, also an accomplished artist. This move marked a turning point in Hofker’s career as he began to immerse himself in the rich tapestry of Indonesian life.

He and his wife travelled from Batavia to Bogor to Bandung, and eventually settled in Bali till the Japanese invasion in 1942. The Hofkers chose to live a new life in Bali where they were fascinated by the beauty and richness of the landscape, architecture, culture and religious ceremonies.

Charcoal on paper drawing of Kampung houses in Batavia (Jakarta), signed and dated in the year 1938.
Courtesy of Indies Gallery

Capturing Indonesian Life

Hofker’s art is celebrated for its ability to convey the depth and diversity of Indonesian culture. He frequently depicted scenes of daily life, portraying the grace and beauty of the people against the backdrop of their unique customs and rituals. His masterful use of colour and light captured the essence of the archipelago, from the bustling markets to serene village landscapes.

While Hofker excelled in portraying the broader Indonesian culture, he also became renowned for his exquisite portraits. Whereas his European portraits were mostly the result of commissions, in Bali he had the freedom to choose whoever he wished to paint, male or female. His subjects ranged from ordinary villagers to members of the royal families. His ability to capture the individuality and spirit of his subjects earned him recognition and praise.

Ni Legit, a Janger dancer drawn by Willem G Hofker in June 1938 in Denpasar Bali, and made into this stunning lithograph ten years later in Amsterdam in 1948. Hofker never painted dancers performing, but always at rest, as if they were reflecting for a moment before the actual dance.
Courtesy of Indies Gallery.

World War II and Internment

The outbreak of World War II brought significant challenges to Hofker’s life in Indonesia. With the Japanese occupation, he, along with other European residents, was interned in a camp in Sulawesi in December 1943. Despite the hardships of internment, Hofker continued to create art, using whatever materials were available to him, producing portraits of his fellow prisoners and sketches of scenes from daily life in the camp. These works offer a poignant glimpse into the resilience of the human spirit even in the face of adversity.

Ni Wiriah, etching by Hofker, around the year 1948 in Amsterdam.
Courtesy of Indies Gallery

Post-War Contributions

Unable to gain permission to return to Bali, Hofker and his wife bade farewell to Indonesia and returned to Holland in 1946. After the war, Hofker resumed his artistic pursuits and returned to engraving in the immediate years, where he found a new form for some of the most beautiful and significant Balinese canvases as etchings and lithographs.

Sometimes recreating lost works from memory and sometimes combining details from existing paintings to discover new variations on a Balinese theme. Apart from working on portrait commissions, Hofker would sketch Amsterdam scenes, its architecture and castles in the Netherlands. His art not only served as a visual documentation of Indonesia but also contributed to the broader understanding of the nation’s cultural richness.

Willem G Hofker
An etching showing Ni Asoeg wearing an Arja headdress, was engraved and published in Amsterdam in the year 1948. Courtesy of Indies Gallery.

Willem G Hofker
Two Legong dancers, Ni Sadri and Ni Tjawan, who still inspired Willem Hofker after his return to the Netherlands, as is shown by this postwar lithograph published in the year 1948. Courtesy of Indies Gallery.

Legacy and Recognition

W.G. Hofker’s contributions to Indonesian art are celebrated to this day. His legacy lives on through the continued appreciation of his works, which are displayed in museums and private collections worldwide. Ruang Hofker, in the Neka Museum in Ubud, stands as a testament to his enduring impact on the art scene in Indonesia.

W.G. Hofker’s life and art are a testament to the profound connection between an artist and the environment that inspires them. Through his brushstrokes, he captured the spirit, culture, and beauty of Indonesia, leaving behind a body of work that continues to be cherished, and sometimes criticized, for its evocative power and cultural significance.

The works by Hofker shown in this article are offered for purchase by Indies Gallery, a dealer in authentic maps, prints, books and photographs, dating from the fifteenth to the twentieth century. Indies Gallery also offers these decorative artworks as reprints: |

Sake Santema

Sake Santema

Based in Singapore, Sake Santema from Indies Gallery is dealing in antiques, with a focus on old maps, prints, books and photographs, dating from the fifteenth to the twentieth century. Whether you're an experienced collector or a first-time buyer, Indies Gallery offers an extensive collection in all price ranges. Visit for more information.