I can’t think why I hadn’t heard of George Hendrik Breitner (1857–1923). He was a major figure in painting in the Netherlands at the time, he painted with Vincent van Gogh, was an early adopter of photography as an aid to his painting, and an innovative photographer in his own right. In this and the next article, I will try to make amends by showing a small selection of his works, many of which are in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
Breitner was born in Rotterdam in 1857, and was a brilliant student at the Art Academy in The Hague until he was expelled in 1880, for destroying the regulations board. Although at first associated with the Hague School of landscape art, he drew away from that and today is normally termed an Amsterdam Impressionist, a group which included Isaac Israëls and Jan Toorop.
After leaving the Academy in 1880, he went and worked on the vast panorama being painted in The Hague by Hendrik Mesdag, the Panorama Mesdag.
In 1882, Breitner met Vincent van Gogh, and the pair went out sketching and painting in the poorer parts of The Hague. Among Breitner’s paintings of that campaign is his watercolour Distribution of Soup (1882), which tackles a similar theme to Christian Krohg’s last great Naturalist work The Struggle for Existence (1889).
This was the period when Vincent van Gogh was living with Sien Hoornik, an alcoholic prostitute, and her young daughter, after he had fallen out with Anton Mauve.
The undated Ground Porters with Carts is another of Breitner’s watercolour paintings showing the rough side of life at the time. He appears to have been influenced at this time by the Naturalist literature of Émile Zola, and felt that it was his task to depict the common people and their lives.
During this time, he also painted several works showing military Cavalry (1883-88). I do not understand how they fitted with his Naturalism, but these works are both technically and artistically impressive, particularly for a painter so early in his career.
Breitner also appears to have been influenced by Jules Bastien-Lepage and the French Naturalist interest in children living in poverty. This wonderful painting The Wooden Shoes (1884-85) show a young girl proudly displaying her new wooden clogs.
He chose his models from among the poorer in society not because he couldn’t afford to pay them, but because of his emphasis on painting common people. Among them, Marie Jordan (1866-1948) next became his partner, then the couple married.
This photographic print of Marie Jordan Nude, Lying on the Bed from about 1888 is one of a series which he made at about the same time that he was working on a painting of her.
Although conventionally dated to about 1887, there can be little doubt that Breitner’s Reclining Nude was based on that print.
His figurative painting, like his plein air landscape sketches, was rough in a style that anticipated the great figurative painters of the twentieth century. Although his motifs and themes were strongly Naturalist, his painting style was never the detailed realism normally considered to be associated with the Naturalist movement.
Breitner entered the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam in 1886, but by that time he had progressed well beyond anything which it could offer him. He went out onto the streets of Amsterdam sketching discreetly, as shown in An Evening on the Dam in Amsterdam (c 1890).
Two Servants on an Amsterdam Bridge at Night (1890) is another nocturne showing some of the people that he met on the streets.
Through the 1890s, Breitner established his reputation with those atmospheric oil sketches, and some larger studio paintings such as this View of the Oosterpark in Amsterdam in the Snow from 1892.
Breitner was also an enthusiast for Japonism(e), which was most obvious in his figurative paintings like The Earring, from about 1893. His model was most probably one of his favourites, Geesje Kwak, who was to appear in some of his most important figurative work over the coming few years.
His Standing Nude (1893) is a variation on the same theme, less the Japonism(e), apparently painted against the same mirror in his studio, probably with the same model.