Born in 1919 in Pittem, Belgium, Frans Claerhout completed his studies in the priesthood, before coming out to South Africa in 1946 as a Catholic missionary. Now known as Father Claerhout, he was initially posted to the Orange Free State, where he worked among the black people living in and around Bloemfontein. He served primarily in Bloemfontein, Thabanchu and his beloved Tweespruit mission station.
Although he had had no formal art tuition, he came from an artistic family and had joined a local art society in his student days. In 1957 he went back to Belgium on a visit and toured its museums. On his return to South Africa, he began to sketch and paint with great enthusiasm, producing an abundance of expressionist landscapes and figures in warm, earthy colours.
He held his first solo exhibition in Johannesburg in 1961. The influence of Flemish art on his painting was still evident both in the colour and the atmosphere of these works, and it took a while before the clear blue skies of the Orange Free State and the greens, browns and yellows of its vegetation left their mark on his paintings.
Although he remained fascinated by paint and brush – experiencing oil painting on a rough, impastoed surface as his greatest challenge – Claerhout also experimented widely with other media – clay modelling, wood-carving, monotypes and linocuts, stained glass set in concrete windows, painted murals and a prolific stream of drawings in charcoal, pen-and-ink or crayon.
His artworks – characterised by their warm colours, thick impasto paint, exaggerated forms, humour and compassion – were exhibited widely in South Africa, as well as in Belgium, Canada, Germany, the United States and the United Kingdom.
A much-loved artist and priest, Father Claerhout died in his sleep in July 2006, aged 87.