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Examining Photographic Activity through a Wide-Angle Lens

Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries, Paris was the locus of artistic activity. For that reason, the current exhibition Snapshot: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard profiles six long-term residents of the French capital: printmaker Henri Rivière, Belgian painter Henri Evenepoel, and four members of the Nabis (Hebrew for ‘prophets’), a well-known artists’ circle active in Paris. The show pairs the professional output of these selected post-Impressionists with their recreational experiments as amateur photographers. Introduced in 1888, the handheld Kodak camera became a ubiquitous accoutrement of the modern artist. In addition to Parisians, Snapshot also includes the work of Dutch modernist George Hendrick Breitner, which demonstrates the universality of the avant-garde and their quick response to new technology. Such efforts to present a more inclusive history of the period broaden the show’s geographical scope.

Breitner’s work is unfamiliar to many outside of his native Holland. He spent the majority of his career in The Hague and Amsterdam, with brief sojourns in Berlin, London, and Paris. From 1876 until 1880, Breitner attended the Hague Art Academy, and, following disciplinary expulsion from the institution, he continued his studies in the private studio of Hague School painter Willem Maris for one year. Under the tutelage of Maris, he painted en plein air, a practice that likely contributed to his break with more conventional methodologies. Around the same time, Breitner discovered the French Naturalist writings of Gustave Flaubert, the Goncourt brothers (Edmond and Jules), and Émile Zola, which informed his selection of subject matter. His compatriot Vincent van Gogh also exhibited an appreciation for the transnational literary movement. Naturalist texts made available a plethora of suitable motifs for urbanites like Breitner and van Gogh. The two artists exchanged their favorite publications, and van Gogh accompanied Breitner on sketching excursions in The Hague’s working-class districts, and other sites described by Naturalist authors. Consequently, these activities yielded cityscapes as opposed to the pastoral views and seascapes favored by the preceding generation of Dutch artists, namely the Hague School painters.

George Hendrik Breitner, “The Dam, Amsterdam” 1895. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam.

Countless snapshots taken with Breitner’s first handheld Kodak camera, acquired shortly after its debut, supplemented his sketches in an ever-increasing corpus of pictorial reference material. His immediate grasp of the new medium’s potential in his own artistic process is evident in the present exhibition. Breitner’s painting Demolition of Oudezijds Achterburgwal (1903-04) bears more than a passing resemblance in both form and subject matter to his snapshots of street reconstruction in Amsterdam (taken from 1894-1898). It is instructive to compare professional photographer Charles Marville’s (1816-1879) carefully composed images chronicling the ‘Haussmannization’ of Paris, taken in the 1860s and 1870s, with Breitner’s casual snapshots of Amsterdam’s modernization. Flattened picture planes and unusual cropping characterize Breitner’s images. Breitner translated this photographic aesthetic to painting, creating works distinguished by their innovatory compositional daring.

George Heidrik Breitner, “Demolition in the Oudezijds Achterburgwal,” 1903-1904.

George Hendrik Breitner, “Oudezijds Achterburgwal, Amsterdam (‘Het Kolkje’),” 1890-1900. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam.

Charles Marville, “Rue Saint-Jacques,” 1864-before February 1867. Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation through Robert and Joyce Menschel, National Gallery of Art, 2003.17.1.

Breitner’s inclusion in the exhibition bears witness to the global impact of the handheld Kodak camera. At the Indianapolis opening of Snapshot, Dr. Elizabeth Easton discussed the pervasive use and influence of the device. Easton also explained the rationale behind the curators’ selections. In the case of each artist chosen, the creation of oil and graphic compositions roughly parallel their photographic experiments. This juxtaposition of public and private work reveals an interesting relationship between media, ultimately informed by the same artistic sensibility. Certainly, Breitner’s images of Amsterdam meet this criterion, and collectively, the artists of Snapshot serve as a representative sample of those captivated by the Kodak in the artistic capital of Paris and beyond.

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