Tuesday, November 4, 2014

George Breitner

Girl in a White Kimono
oil on canvas
59 × 57cm
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Inspired by Japanese prints, Breitner made at least twelve paintings around 1894 of a girl in a kimono. She assumes different poses and the kimono often has a different colour. The dreamy girl is sixteen-year-old Geesje Kwak, a hat-seller and one of Breitner’s regular models. She was born in 1877 in the province of North Holland. When she was 16, she moved to Amsterdam and her path crossed that of the artist Breitner. In 1892 Breitner visited an influential exhibition of Japanese art in The Hague (which style had earlier inspired Vincent van Gogh, among others), and he enthusiastically acquired several kimonos and some decorative room screens as a result. Now a year later, Breitner asked young milliner Geesje Kwakthe to pose as a model in the kimonos on a paid professional basis. There is an existing notebook in which he recorded the various dates and hours when Geesje posed for him, and the amounts which she was paid for her time.

George Hendrik Breitner (1857-1923) was a Dutch painter and photographer, born in Rotterdam.
An important figure in Amsterdam Impressionism, he is noted especially for his paintings of street scenes and harbours in a realistic style. He introduced a social realism to the Netherlands that created shock waves similar to that of Courbet and Manet's in France. He painted en plein air, and became interested in photography as a means of documenting street life and atmospheric effects as reference materials for his paintings.

In 1876, he enrolled at the academy in The Hague. He preferred working-class models: labourers, servant girls and people from lower-class neighbourhoods. He saw himself as 'le peintre du peuple', the people's painter. In 1886, he moved to Amsterdam, where he recorded the life of the city in sketches, paintings and photos. Sometimes he made several pictures of the same subject, from different angles or in different weather conditions. Photos might serve as an example for a painting, as for his portraits of girls in kimonos, or as general reference material. By the turn of the century he was a famous painter in the Netherlands. Although he exhibited abroad early on, his fame never crossed the borders of the Netherlands.

In the early months of 1882, he came into contact with Vincent van Gogh. Van Gogh appears to have been introduced to him by his brother Theo, and the pair sketched together in the working-class districts of The Hague. Two years after van Gogh's death, Breitner wrote that he did not like van Gogh's paintings:"‘I can’t help it, but to me it seems like art for Eskimos, I cannot enjoy it. I honestly find it coarse and distasteful, without any distinction, and what’s more, he has stolen it all from Millet and others."