After the bank was dissolved in 1890, the Graafland family - five boys and three girls - moved to Nieuwer-Amstel, close to Amsterdam, and then to Amsterdam where Rob Graafland attended two schools at the same time: the Rijksnormaalschool voor Teekenonderwijzers, a school for training future teachers in the art of drawing, and the Quellinusschool, many years later renamed the Rietveld Academy. The purpose of the latter, founded by P. J. H. Cuypers in 1879, was to educate young people to become artisans while the Rijksmusem was being built, which was designed by Cuypers. The parents of Graafland wanted him to be trained as an architect, but Graafland himself had set his heart on becoming a painter and after taking his diploma in drawing in 1895 he enrolled at the Royal Academy of Art in Amsterdam. His teachers were Professor Augustus Allebé en Professor Carel L. Dake. During the next few years, Graafland taught at an evening art school in Amsterdam founded by a college friend of his, Gerrit Willem Knap, whose classes were very popular.
On 26th September 1898 Rob Graafland applied for a position at the Stadsteekeninstituut in Maastricht, an institute which provided a training course for young artisans. Graafland was accepted, and on 11th januari 1899 he settled down in Maastricht and moved a year later to Gronsveld, a hamlet near Maastricht. His two colleagues at the institute were Frans van der Laar, a sculptor from Sittard, and Willem Sprenger. The school started on 1st December 1898. Only three or four artists lived in Maastricht (34,000 people) around that time.
Graafland turned out to be an inspired teacher. One of his pupils, the writer Mathieu Kemp, wrote in "Limburgs Dagblad" ("Daily Newspaper of Limburg") on 2nd November 1956: "His great ability and pedagogic qualities earned him high esteem". Graafland did not limit himself to teaching drawing and painting skills, he also broadened the minds of his pupils by teaching music and literature. It was thanks to these lessons that Pierre and Mathieu Kemp got acquainted with the work of the Belgian poet Guido Gezelle, which would stimulate their literary careers a great deal. Pierre Kemp remembers in his "Proza" ("Prose") (1945) Graafland's "brilliant and inspiring leadership". Pierre Kemp signed his early poems (1909-1913) with the pseudonym of "Rob. Ree", a nom de plume composed of Graafland's first name, Rob, and the second note of the scales. Graafland was raised in the Christian faith, but as an adult he lost to some extent interest in Christianity.
In 1901 Rob Graafland founded the Zondagsschool voor Decoratieve Kunsten (Sunday Art School) in cooperation with the Stadsteekeninstituut. Graafland had made a start with this in 1899 and fifteen pupils had already signed up for this course who were willing to pay f 0.25 per lesson. In November 1899, therefore, Rob Graafland proposed the foundation of this Sunday Art School. His proposals were discussed at the meeting of the Stadsteekeninstituut on 30th November 1899, but the Committee decided not to support him. The reason being that if only twelve of the fifteen pupils were paying for this course, the proceeds would not cover all the expenses (apparently this was not a problem for Rob Graafland). In addition, the Committee disapproved of a course which would be a risk to the teacher without an existing official relationship with the Stadsteekeninstituut. The Stadsteekeninstituut itself was not yet ready to organise a Sunday Art School, since high ranking officials had decided that such a course would not be desirable for the time being. But in 1901 Graafland's proposals became reality. At the meeting of 26th November 1901, the Committee decided to start a painting course in January 1902 on Sunday mornings from 9am to 12pm. Graafland was appointed teacher, teaching drawing and painting skills, and the venue would be in the .............. (unreadable in the minutes) of Graafland. The official name would be the Zondagsschool voor Decoratieve Kunsten or Zondagsschilderschool (Sunday Art School). Thanks to Graafland's experiences as a teacher in Amsterdam and during the past three years at the Stadsteekeninstituut he was able to choose the most talented pupils, like Edmond Bellefroid, Hermann Bopp, Jules Brouwers, P. Coenen, Guillaume Eberhard, Jean Grégoire, Charles Hollman, Hull, Han Jelinger, Henri Jonas, Mathieu and Pierre Kemp, Victor Marres, Joep Narinx, Nicolaas, Jan and Jos Postmes, Vic Reynders, Harry Schoonbrood, Willy Schoonhoven van Beurden, Selinger and Charles Vos. They were known as "The Class of Graafland". In winter, Graafland and his pupils were also painting in the Augustijnerkerk (church) in Maastricht. In summer, they were painting in the countryside "en plein air". As from 1911, the lessons were to be held in the Italian garden of Graafland's place at St Pieter near Maastricht.
On 19th August 1902 Rob Graafland married Maria Duquesne. Their honeymoon took them to Italy and they travelled around the country for quite some time. Italy, and especially Venice, were the inspiration for Graafland for creating colourful paintings between 1909 and 1919. When the couple returned to Maastricht, Graafland had a large detached villa built designed by himself, "Villa Aldegonda". Their first child was born in December 1903, a daughter called Suzanna.
In 1905 Graafland travelled to the USA. It is debatable how long he stayed there for, but it must have been a few months.Three postcards sent to Miss W Jelinger in Maastricht are respectively dated New York 4th June 1905, New York 19th June 1905 and New York 6th July 1905. The purpose of this visit was to meet American painters and to find out about their artistic development. This was quite unusual since other painters, like the Haagsche School (Art School of The Hague), would visit Paris for the same purpose. Why did Graafland choose America? Nobody knows. Graafland himself has never explained his reasons. Mrs Yvonne Graafland-Marres, daughter-in-law of Rob Graafland, says about this visit in an interview with Ieneke Suidman for the art magazine Kunstwerk (Work of Art) (3): "Nobody understood the motivation for this journey". The reasons for Graafland's visit to the USA must have been a sense of adventure focussed on Amerika and a strong artistic curiosity. It is possible that he kept in touch with the artist Antoon Molkenboer who lived in the USA from 1905 to 1910, as well as with the painter Hubert Vos – a nephew of his pupil Charles Vos - who lived in the USA. Molkenboer and Graafland had been pupils at the Rijksnormaalschool voor Teekenonderwijzers in Amsterdam at the same time and they must have known each other. However, Molkenboer lived in New York in 1905 for only six months, and the question is whether this period coincided with Graafland's visit to New York. But Rob Graafland did meet up with Hubert Vos on Long Island. This must have been in April or May 1905, or even earlier, since in June 1905 Hubert Vos arrived at the palace in Beijing to paint a portrait of the empress dowager of China, Cixi, and he returned to New York in 1906. Unfortunately, there is little known of Graafland's travels across the USA. He was painting with American fellow painters "en plein air" on Staten Island (New York); he visited Hubert Vos on Long Island; he managed to get many commissions for paintings; and he paid a visit to an Indian reservation where he nearly got killed upon arrival. Only by making a quick drawing of the magnificently dressed up chief in front of his tribe did they stop threatening him and did they actually treat him kindly. Back in Maastricht he wrote to the art critic Plasschaert to be extremely glad to be home again.
Jean van de Voort writes about Graafland in "Kunst in Limburg" ("Art in Limburg"): "Beside a strong personal style, you can see in all of his paintings, in a brilliance that cannot be ignored, the beautiful reflection of an intimate, poetical emotion, which turns every painting into a colourful poem." Graafland did indeed sometimes choose the theme of a poem to express it on canvas. Van de Voort: "Young Love (1918), is the poetical expression of the poem by Gottfried Mann:""The sun was high in the sky, spring echoed in the leaves,
Other artists joined Graafland, like the painters Herman Gouwe, Chris Hammes and Willem van Konijnenburg; Henri Hermans, conductor of the Maastrichter Stedelijk Orkest (Maastricht City Orchestra); and the opera singer Joseph Joosten. Graafland's place became a meeting place for artists and pupils. In the evenings and on Sundays they enjoyed making music and discussing anything they were interested in. Henri Hermans played the harmonium accompanying Joseph Joosten who was singing arias, Charles Hollman played the cello, and Graafland had a pleasant tenor voice and performed songs of "Schöpfung" from Hayden and recited poems from Schubert. Graafland loved music. He owned a pianola which was playing while he was painting and for which new rolls were delivered every week; Mozart and Tchaikovsky were his favourites. Another popular meeting place was Café Suisse at the Vrijthof in Maastricht, and they were given the nickname "The Gang of Suisse". Herman Gouwe from Alkmaar visited Maastricht for the first time in 1908. Graafland introduced him to Café Suisse and Gouwe introduced him in Amsterdam to the Larensche Kunsthandel (Art Gallery) and to the Sint-Lucasgilde (Society). Gouwe stayed with the Graafland family whenever he was visiting Maastricht and in his unpublished autobiography he wrote about Graafland: "He lived in a big and beautiful house on the edge of Maastricht, at St Pieter. He was very popular and his character was light-heartedly philosophical en his paintings were full of joy" (p. 20). And in 1959 Gouwe wrote about his meeting with Mrs Suzanna Twaalfhoven-Graafland: "I had known Mrs Twaalfhoven as from her very early youth, for she was the daughter of my friend and colleague Graafland in Maastricht where I used to stay when visiting Limburg in summer" (p. 79). And also in 1959 about Twaalfhoven-Graafland's house in Maastricht: "There was a large painting on the wall 'Ploughing Horses' which I had made for my friend Graafland a long time ago" (p. 80). After Gouwe had settled down in Tahiti, Suzanna Graafland corresponded with him until his death. And Gouwe used to send her paintings from Tahiti to be sold.
In 1916, Graafland introduced the work of two of his pupils, Henri Jonas and Guillaume Eberhard, at St Lucas (St Lucas Art Society) in Amsterdam. He himself exhibited two paintings at St Lucas, "Levensvreugde" ("Joy of Life") and "Meisjes in de zon" ("Girls in the Sun"). In September of the same year Graafland was invited for an exhibition of the 's-Hertogenbosche Kunstkring (Art Society of 's-Hertogenbosch) and for these two paintings he was awarded the Gold Medal, which was presented to him by Queen Wilhelmina. When Graafland returned home from Amsterdam, the local brassband serenaded him the same evening.
Henri Jonas, a pupil of "The Class of Graafland", moved to Amsterdam in 1917 to study at the Royal Academy of Art. Graafland had managed to get a scholarship for him from the council of Maastricht.
In 1920, Graafland was invited by the society The Netherlands Abroad to take part in a number of exhibitions in England: Brighton, London, Sunderland, Bredford and Blackpool. Graafland's entries were "Joy of Life" en "Young Love".
Robert Graafland had now reached the pinnacle of his career. As a teacher, he had educated talented pupils and introduced them in Amsterdam where they could take part in exhibitions. As an artist he was acknowledged and admired, his paintings had made him famous both in Limburg and Holland. In addition, his was a happy marriage and he enjoyed being a father. All these years he had been struggling to develop himself and his pupils, and his enthusiasm and dedication had known no bounds. But then, suddenly, it was all over.
On 29th August 1922, the Graafland family moved from St Pieter to Maastricht. Rob Graafland was no longer able to paint anymore, physically and mentally, until 1934. However, he managed to do some other kinds of work. He became an art teacher at a school for domestic science in Maastricht, for which he also designed patterns for carpets, cushions and tapestries. He became chairman of the Schoonheidscommissie in Maastricht, Valkenburg and Houthem (Heritage Maastricht). And he continued illustrating children books and weekly and monthly magazins.
Two years later Graafland moved from Vught to The Hague, he wanted to become part of life again. Many of his paintings created in The Hague were destroyed by the allied bombardment of The Hague on 3rd March 1945. A year later, life became too much for him and Graafland moved back to his former house in Vught. In September 1938 Graafland took part in the exhibition Veertig Jaar Limburgsche Kunst (Forty Years of Art in Limburg) in Maastricht. His five paintings drew the attention of many visitors.
Robert Graafland explained his motivation for his art at two exhibitions. At the first exhibition, a solo exhibition, in 's-Hertogenbosch in January 1937 he said when thanking the mayor of 's-Hertogenbosch, baron F. van Lanschot, for opening his exhibition:
"If my work has contributed to people's happiness and if I - in case an artist's vocation is like that of the Apostles', however small mine may be - have succeeded in showing the beauty and purity of God's Creation, then my work has not been in vain."
At the second exhibition in Maastricht in 1938 in honour of the 40th anniversary of Queen Wilhelmina's accession to the throne, Graafland expressed this in a slightly different way:
"It will be my reward if my work has contributed to and increased people's happiness."
And on 1st October 1938 Rob Graafland had written to his friend and colleague Charles Hollman: "....... Fortunately your romantic nature is still present in your work; for, of course, in these rational, businesslike times we certainly need a bit of romanticism. It is obvious that whatever happens in the world will influence artists, but it is a fact that, the more businesslike and rational life turns out to be, people's desire for romanticism will increase. After all, romanticism is an integral part of life."