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George Hendrik Breitner

George Hendrik Breitner - Lyklema Fine Art

Breitner (Rotterdam 1857-1923) was the painter of Amsterdam City Life. Painter of dynamics and melancholy. Many Amsterdammers will consider him to be the painter par excellence who managed to capture the atmosphere of the city. From Dam Square, Kalverstraat and Rokin to local studios, the canals and construction workshops. He was an impressionist who put paint on the canvas with broad and large gestures. He also made beautiful watercolors and etchings. In addition to cityscapes, he made nudes, military scenes and many paintings with horses and their riders.

The young Breitner was eventually allowed by his father, a grain merchant, to start training at the Drawing Academy in The Hague, and the following year, 1876, at the Academy of Visual Arts in The Hague, where he was dismissed in 1880 because of his radical (brusque) behavior. was sent away. In the meantime, he also worked in various studios, including in the studio of Willem Maris in 1881, and was influenced by the painters of the Hague School. Breitner became a member of the Hague 'Pulchri Studio' and often took part in figure drawing lessons there. He had a patron A.P. van Stolk for whom he made, among other things, a painting of 'The Yellow Riders'. Willem Mesdag was impressed by Breitner's horses and hired him to paint horses and the village of Scheveningen on the Panorama Mesdag. That was in 1881, the year that he regularly went out with Vincent van Gogh. He preferred to choose his models from the lower classes: workers, maids and residents of working-class neighborhoods. He saw himself as peintre du peuple, just as Van Gogh did. Van Gogh, not too complimentary, described Breitner's canvases as large expanses of faded colors that reminded him of rotting and moldy wallpaper. That was perhaps the clearest signal to leave The Hague and exchange for another city.

Breitner - De Gele Rijders - Rijksmuseum
George Hendrik Breitner, The Yellow Riders, 1885-86 Rijksmuseum

At the end of 1886, after his return from Paris, raw dower Breitner left for Amsterdam. The city was in transition; industry grew and modern traffic began to make its demands: canals were filled in and new residential areas were built. Breitner found his inspiration in this picturesqueness. In 1886 he also visited the Rijksakademie for some time and soon became a member of the artists' association Arti et Amicitiae. This is where his most important works were created as the great portrayal of Amsterdam life, both day and night.

Damrak - Collection Rijks Museum

Breitner eagerly searched for new techniques and subjects, often preceded by his photographs as a sketch. Many of his works have been discussed 'for that reason'. The sudden cutting off of the image edges and the diagonal image structure made his works stand out. With the camera, Breitner had an instrument with which he could capture bare reality. The cut figures contribute to the persuasive power of the depiction of a fleeting moment. Breitner used his photographs mainly as documentation, as a visual reminder; his photographs (and therefore his painting) often had a low camera angle and a high horizon. In Dutch cities it was forbidden to paint on the street without permission from the municipal council. The speed, enhanced by the snapshot, with which Breitner painted, caused some art critics to label his work as 'unfinished'. Exactly the same problem for which earlier French impressionists such as Monet, Pissarro, Renoir and Sisley were criticized at their first joint exhibition in 1874.

Breitner was later included in the circle of artists and writers surrounding the literary magazine De Nieuwe Gids, which was published six times a year. With his nudes, lived-in portraits and especially his cityscapes, Breitner became one of the leaders of the Amsterdam Impressionists. Breitner often collaborated with Isaac Israëls; they were friends and rivals. In the spring of 1892, Isaac Israels (1865-1934) stood in front of the window of an art dealer in Amsterdam face to face with a beautiful cityscape in the snow. It is a painting by George Hendrik Breitner and it makes a devastating impression on him. “I thought I'd quit, you can't compete with such work,” Israels wrote to a friend. Shortly before, the roles were reversed. And that will remain the case from then on until they too are in trouble. It is only at a friend's funeral 10 years later that things are made right again. While Israëls had previously entered international stages, Breitner was honored in 1901 with a retrospective exhibition at the Amsterdam art association Arti et Amicitiae.

Breitner, Sleperspaarden in de sneeuw, 1890-1893, Dordrechts Museum
Horses in the snow - 1890-1893 - Dordrechts Museum 


Where the post-impressionist Van Gogh depicted his perception of the world using strong contrasts and color schemes, Breitner tried to show a pure, bare reality. With rapid brushstrokes, Breitner depicted life on the street. Breitner especially saw the picturesque of the gray and gray, of the wind, snow and rain, and of the sparkle of the shop lights and windows in the water of the puddles and the canals. It is not without reason that Amsterdammers say: 'it is real Breitner weather'.

He himself said about 'his' city: 'It is not only the beauty that touches me, but also the dynamics, the liveliness. Everything is moving here, construction is underway, the cultural climate is flourishing. I want to capture that vitality in my paintings. Amsterdam also suits my character better: it is just as impulsive and explosive as I am.' His later city paintings became increasingly traditional: bridges and freight boats on the corners of canals. Breitner also increasingly sought his subjects indoors, in traditional genres, such as his nudes and the series of Japanese Girls in Kimonos. Inspired by Japanese prints, Breitner painted thirteen such paintings between 1893 and 1896. The Dreamy Girl is sixteen-year-old Geesje Kwak, a seamstress and one of Breitner's regular models.

Breitner - Rijks

Geesje Kwak in Kimono -1894- Rijks

His work is related to that of the 'Tachtigers'; a group of artists with great influence on the Dutch art world in the nineteenth century. Blobs of paint may remain visible and what is depicted may be ugly, as long as it is truthful. But their world of thought is also innovative. In the eyes of this generation of painters, art is a calling and the artist is a genius. Everything revolves around the most individual expression of emotions, impressions and observations.

He was friends with Willem Witsen, with whom he preferred to play chess rather than have a conversation; George was quite short-tempered in discussions. The work of Marie Henrie Mackenzie (1879-1961), Paul Hermans (1898-1972) and Jan Korthals (1916-1972), among others, was influenced by Breitner. He also taught Kees Maks, Floris Verster and Erasmus van Dulmen Krumpelman, among others. But also work that we offer by David Schulman and…. would be different without Breitner. It is not without reason that he is on our list of the 15 most influential 'modern' artists.


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