"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

April 6, 2014

George Breitner: Girl in a White Kimono (Dutch Painting)

George Hendrik Breitner (1857 – 1923) painted Girl in a White Kimono in 1894. The painting is in the collection of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Inspired by ukiyoe prints, in 1894 Breitner made at least twelve paintings of a girl in kimono. On different paintings, the girl has different poses and the kimono also varies. The paintings are considered highlights of Dutch Japonisme.

On this painting, we see the girl reclining on a couch with her arms behind her head to better show off the long sleeves (probably belonging to a maiko, an apprentice geisha) of her silvery-white kimono. She wears a red under-dress and the kimono has been tied with an orange sash instead of the in Japan usual obi. Behind the couch on which she reclines, we see a Japanese screen.

  • George Hendrik Breitner (1857 – 1923) was born in Rotterdam and studied at the Art Academy of The Hague. He was initially associated with landscape artist Willem Maris and in 1881-82 worked at the Panorama Mesdag in The Hague. In 1882, he met Vincent van Gogh, and sketched together in the poorer areas of The Hague. Breitner is considered as a representative of the Movement of 1880, a group of writers and painters who did away with the moralistic Biedermeier culture that had kept Holland in its stranglehold for much of the 19th century, and replaced it by fierce Romanticism, Naturalism and later also Impressionism. In 1886, Breitner moved to Amsterdam where he became an Amsterdam Impressionist and disassociated himself from the Hague School. He became a people's painter known for his dynamic street scenes. Breitner also painted nudes in a raw and naturalistic style. Around the turn of the century, Breitner was regarded as the most famous painter of the Netherlands. Unfortunately, his fame never crossed the borders of the country - foreign interest was geared more towards the picturesqueness of the Hague School. Breitner introduced social realism in the Netherlands and often painted grey and rainy streets. In Dutch, we even have the expression "Breitner weather..."
  • In 1892, Breitner attended an important exhibition of Japanese prints in The Hague and this inspired him to acquire some prints, as well as kimonos and decorative screens, and try his hand at "Japonisme" (like Van Gogh did in the same period). Breitner's "Girl in Kimono" paintings contrast sharply with his usual impressionistic views of Amsterdam.
  • The innovative Breitner, by the way, was one of the first artists to use the medium of photography as a tool - several of his paintings, including those in the "Girl in Kimono" series, were based on photos he took with his then revolutionary hand-held camera (introduced by Kodak in 1888).
  • The girl with the dreamy look in her eyes is Geesje Kwak, a sixteen-year old working class girl who was one of Breitner's models. Geesje Kwak (1877-1899) was born in Zaandam and moved in 1893 to Amsterdam with her sister Anna to enter the young lady's profession of milliner. The sisters also soon came in contact with Breitner, who then had his studio at the pretty Lauriergracht in Amsterdam, and both worked as his models. This came to an end when Geesje emigrated to South-Africa with her elder sister Niesje. She died in 1899 in Pretoria at the young age of 22 due to tuberculosis. Geesje was properly paid as a model - there still exist notebooks about how long she posed and what she earned for it. Her contact with Breitner was purely businesslike.

[Geesje Kwak, photographed by Breitner. Photo Wikipedia.nl]

  • Breitner's "Girl in Kimono" paintings are decorative and intimate at the same time. Breitner seems not to have been interested in Japanese culture in itself (in contrast to Van Gogh), but rather in the colorful possibilities of painting a model wearing a kimono. Like his nudes, Breitner's kimono paintings were blasted by critics for their presumed "indecent poses."
  • Breitner's Girl in Red Kimono was sold in 2003 at Christie's for €582,450 to a private collector. 
[Girl in Red Kimono - Photo Wikimedia]