Anton Pieck is proud of Den Helder, but few people know about brother Henri’s spy life

Henri Pieck was a spy for the Russians, an artist, born in Den Helder and less known than his twin brother Anton. Although it was precisely Henri who was the artist of the two. Henri Pieck led an eventful life and died on January 12, 1972, 51 years ago today. His life could hardly have been more contrasted with that of his twin brother.

Henri Pieck – Wikimedia Commons

“That’s the difference between a school teacher and an artist,” says Francine Oonk, curator at Musea Zutphen and great-granddaughter of Anton Pieck, about the two brothers. They spent a lot of time together in their young years. Both had a passion for drawing at a young age.

No one could have guessed then that Anton would become one of the most famous artists in the Netherlands. He has become known for his romantic illustrations of old cityscapes and as the designer of the Adventure Forest in Efteling. Where Anton got a lot of attention, Henri stayed largely unknown to the general public.

the Helder

Henri, or Han, and Anton Pieck were born in 1895 in Den Helder. There was little money: father drank away most of his income at the tavern and took some home. According to Oonk, the fact that the two boys were allowed to take drawing lessons at the age of six is ​​special: It shows how much passion they both had for art.

Even when they move to The Hague in their teens, this passion remains very much alive in both boys. Oonk: “They got their primary school teacher’s certificate at the age of fourteen and secondary education at the age of 17. At their graduation it was joked that they could start thinking about their retirement.”

“He survived Buchenwald by drawing portraits of Nazi leaders who walked around there.”

Francine Oonk, curator at Musea Zutphen and great-granddaughter of Anton Pieck

The brothers differ greatly in character. Oonk: “They really grew apart after that. Anton was the craftsman and the art teacher. He also chose a safe profession as a teacher. Henri was seen as the artist. He was expected to show the world the most. He traveled a lot.”


Among other things, Henri worked as an artist, designer of exhibitions and he designed many covers for books.

But there is also a contrast in Henri’s apparently Burgundian life as an artist: He has been active as a spy for the Soviet Union since the 1930s. He has had an affinity with communism since the 1920s. He travels through Europe gathering information for the Soviet Union. He is said to have shadowed a British diplomat for a while.

Henri knows how to keep these activities well hidden from his surroundings. He and Anton have little contact these years, and his twin brother doesn’t know anything about it either.


In 1941, Henri was arrested for collaborating in a communist protest magazine. He is imprisoned in the Buchenwald concentration camp. Oonk: “He survived by drawing portraits of Nazi leaders who went around there.”

Henri Pieck also did much of his own work in the camp. “The drawings he made there are appalling,” says Oonk. “The way he captured the suffering there is incredible. Anton saw it as some of his brother’s best work.” The drawings were later published in a collection.

In the years after the war, Pieck lost his faith in communism and the Soviet Union. He rarely painted anymore and worked mainly as an exhibition designer.

One of the drawings Henri Pieck made in Buchenwald – Wikimedia Commons

Pieck died in 1972. His brother Anton died fifteen years later, in 1987. Unlike his brother, Anton continued to draw until his last day. “They are twins, but a night and day difference, and that is reflected in their work as well,” says Oonk.

She explains: “Henri was very fascinated by the different movements and developments in art, Anton was dismissive of it. He had his own style and kept it throughout his career. Henri wanted to be inspired by what was around him. happened.”

“Anton was thorough and did a lot of reference work. If he drew a baker, he first went to a baker to look at it all. If you look at how Henri did it: oh yes, just quickly. It happened quickly, but it was good.”

As the great-grandson of Anton Pieck, Oonk is proud of both brothers. “These are my roots. I think both Anton and Henri can be incredibly inspiring for us now. They clearly had talent and they would keep working for it. Don’t give up easily, keep going and enjoy it , you make. “

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