George Hendrick Breitner

George Breitner (1857-1923) was among the earliest pioneers to explore the possibilities of the lightweight, easy-to-operate camera. He began making photographs in 1889, a few years after settling in Amsterdam. While he was first and foremost a painter, producing numerous urban scenes, interiors, and nudes, Breitner made nearly 3,000 photographs, which were not discovered until almost forty years after his death. Now he is recognized as one of the most significant early photographers of city life, documenting turn-of-thecentury Amsterdam as well as other European capitals. Unlike conventional professional photographers who preferred empty streets devoid of activity, Breitner thrived on photographing the passersby, capturing the bustle and spontaneity of the modern city. He also created purposefully posed photographs of children and nudes. Breitner owned several cameras, including a small Folding Pocket Kodak, a box camera with a holder for twelve glass plates, and a large model for 5-1/8 x 7-inch shots. Technical perfection meant little to him; he used devices such as backlighting and underexposure to heighten the dramatic effect of his images.

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Girl in Red Kimono, Geesje Kwak, 1893–95, Oil on canvas and Girl in a kimono (Geesje Kwak) at Breitner’s studio on Lauriersgracht, Gelatin silver print.

Between 1893 and 1895, Breitner painted the kimono-clad Geesje Kwak in a variety of poses. Contemporary taste and progressive artistic techniques informed this series of seven paintings. The attire of Breitner’s adolescent model and the décor of his Amsterdam studio reveal the Western fervor for Japanese objects (called japonaiserie) in the second half of the nineteenth-century. Formal qualities of the series recall Japanese print aesthetics, or japonisme. The posthumous inventory and sale of Breitner’s possessions in 1924 revealed a sizeable corpus of Japanese woodcuts. Photography also served as a compositional aid. Nearly three thousand surviving negatives, discovered in 1961, attest to his interest in the medium.