Frans Claerhout was born at Pittem in the western part of Belgium in 1919. After completing his studies in priesthood, he came to South Africa as a Catholic missionary in 1946.
He had to complete various language courses before being sent to the Orange Free State in 1948. He initially worked among the black people living in and around Bloemfontein.
Claerhout had no formal art training but came from an artistic family and he belonged to a local art society in his student years. He visited Belgium and toured its museums in 1957 and, on his return, began to sketch and paint with total dedication.
In November 1961 he held his first solo exhibition in Johannesburg. The influence of Flemish art on his painting was evident both in atmosphere and colour. It was only later that the clear blue sky of the Free State and the green, brown and yellow of vegetation as well as the bright colours preferred by the black people left their mark on his painting.
Although he remained fascinated with brush and paint, experiencing oil-painting on a rough, impastoed surface as his greatest challenge, Claerhout also experimented widely with other media. Modelling in clay and wood-carving, wall-paintings, monotypes and linocuts, stained glass set in concrete windows and a prolific stream of drawings in charcoal, pen-and-ink or crayon have made him a well-known and popular figure on the South African art scene.