Kimono, mirror, et un peu de tristesse (& #NSFW)

This short story will be ‘kimono’, and ‘mirrors’, but it will be not be about Japan, but the Netherlands. The degree of its ‘sadness’ depends on your subjective take on a proverbial half-glass, of course.

But speaking objectively, this is a story about George Hendrik Breitner, a famous artist from Amsterdam relatively little-known elsewhere.

And yes, it’s #NSFW (Not Safe For Work); you better not read it at your workplace (and minors children should either withstand or be supervised by their majors).

The Russian-language article in Wikipedia bluntly (and not so very politically-correct) announces Breitner as a ‘difficult child’; the English-language one evades such steep psychoanalytic invocations and prefers a more complimentary “his extraordinary talent was rewarded on various occasions”. Here is a ‘difficult talent’ himself; self-portrayed:

Psychoanalysis aside, something has definitely went wrong during his study in the the Hague Academy of Arts where he was expelled for his ‘violent behavior.’ On the other hand, another Dutch artist named Hendrik, Hendrik Willem Mesdag, believed that Breitner woudn’t learn much in this school anyway, since his skills had been already more superior than of the teachers there.

Whether this judgement was true or not, is difficult to say, but at least he (being himself a very well known and respected Dutch artist) involved Breitner as an assistant for his enormous panorama of Scheveningen, not asking for his diploma.

The style of Breitner’s works is now known as Dutch Impressionism; if the Netherlands would be the Soviet Union, theses works could well be labeled as “social realism” (or rather as Peredvizhniki, their historical predecessors)

Most of his early works (and not only early ones, in fact) are usually described as “the portraits of common people living their ordinary life”. These are indeed the scenes of mundane life of the city dwellers.

Distribution of Soup (1883)

(Bouwterrein in Amsterdam) (1885) (Construction place in Amsterdam)

But we can also say that his main here was Amsterdam itself, the city where he moved in the mid-1880s (he was born in Rotterdam, then studied at the Hague and Leiden, but it was Amsterdam that became ‘home town’).

Korte Prinsengracht in Amsterdam (c.1887) (Korte Prinsengracht is one of the lovely channels in Amsterdam)

The above is perhaps one of the ‘brighter’ works; Breitner usually painted much more gloomy and rainy scenes of the city:

Amsterdam in Winter (c.1888)

Interestingly, but he was invited by Mesdag not because of these urban sketches, but for his masterful depictions of horses, both in military and urban contexts. Here is obe of his most known ‘horse’ works:

Cavalerie (1883) (you can also see many details here, in the Google Art Project)

It is believed that Breitner was the first artist who managed to accurately depict a horse gallop – perhaps not without some impact by photo-discoveries of Eadweard Muybridge, who was the first one who proved that when a horse gallops, there are moments when all its four legs in the air.

Here’s his another ‘horse work’, already urban and more peaceful:

Plein bij avond (c.1889) (Square in the evening)

Currently such a style (which I would describe more as a “ex” rather than “im” – pressionism) does not look strange or special. But at that time, at the end of 19th century, it was, of course, brand new and edgy, even scandalous. It was also quite marginal (and the artists who practiced it, largely marginalized, both in the art community and in the society in general).

Today the artworks by Breitner hang in the top world museums – for example, they greet the visitors in a modern art hall of the newly re-opened Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, but in those years many of his works had been considered daub, and rarely sold, if at all.

Straat bij avond (c.1892) (Street in the evening)

In fact, even now very few people are truly interested in these works, the majority is just passing by, without spending even a notorious ‘average 17 seconds’:

There are no dramas in these works, nothing unusual or exotic; what we see is plain ordinary everyday; in is usually interesting only for a very small number of the ‘real anthropologists.’

And they are usually very dark, visually. Take, for instance, the works by van Gogh (who was, by the way, a good friend of Breitner) – we see a much brighter palette there, even in his Dutch works not to mention the later, French, period). Breitner is very different:

But if we’d spend some time zooming-in into these scenes, we could discover much more complex, multi-layered – and multi-played – worlds in his paintings.

Like many artists, Breitner also painted nudes (who, in my opinion, even more expressionistic in style):

Seated Half-Nude (1892)

Reclining Nude (also known as Anne, lying naked on a yellow cloth) (1888)

He would, perhaps, follow the path of many artists of his time, of further mastering his skills and gaining recognition as a painter with time (hopefully).

This process, however, had been significantly altered by ‘technological progress’, one o the manifestations of which just happened at this time; a portable handheld camera.

The end of 1880s and the beginning of1890s was a period when a range of  relatively good, relatively simple to use, and relatively cheap cameras appeared on the market. The ones that allowed to shoot on the move, often just from the hands, without using a tripod. In short, what has emerged is a possibility to make what we now call a ‘snapshot’.

I wrote already that photography impacted virtually every major artist of that time (even Degas, who was already a very famous master, got interested in the opportunities provided by photography). But some artists became addicted to the new media more than the others, and Breitner has become one of the most (hyper)active users of the camera.

It’s clear that for his ‘anthropological muse’ a camera has become the most valuable tool of art – it allowed hime to walk through the city and shoot almost everything – exactly like many of us behave with their smartphones (the only difference is that Breitner didn’t have Instagram by then):

Breitner has made a LOT of photos – only those that survived till now amount to more than two thousands, and we know that many were lost already during his lifetime. Sure, we can now smile over this figure; I can easily make 300-400-500 shots per day, if I go to a ‘photo-walk’ – but of course the technology was still fairly rudimentary back then. And yet, all these images form a very valuable, and in many senses unique, archive of the city life.

But Breitner, like many artists, didn’t only take his snapshots ‘just because’, he was taking ‘snapshot with benefits’, in his case to also use these pictures as a material for his future art. Many of his paintings, especially later one, literally ‘imprint’ in them the elements of those photo prints that served as a source of inspiration (and often as a first sketch, as we can assume):

The main point here is not about Breitner copying the composition of his photos into paintings; the impact of photography on his works was much more profound.

A camera – any camera, even now – is much more stupid tham our eye (or rather our mind); its lens may have much better optics, but still struggle to process (=reproduce) the images accurately. There is a famous dilemma in photography related to what is called DoF, Depth of Field. The lens can ‘paint’ the object sharply only if it’s located in the focus zone; what is outside this zone (closer to or further away from the lens) appears blurry on a film (or on contemporary digital matrixes). To make these blurry objects sharp, you need to re-focus your lens – which is not possible during one short.  

Our brain is capable to solve this problem relatively well, as a result we hardly see anything blurry, as soon as we look at the objects, it appears sharp (it is because of that, in the paintings of old masters all objects are sharp, regardless of the distance to them; they painted as they saw themselves).    

But it’s not the case with a camera (and subsequently, the photographs); here we see only certain objects depicted sharply, yet others are more blurry (to the extent that certain object are turning into a pile of the light spots).

And it’s exactly what starts happening in some of the Breitner’s works: in this picture, for instance, we see that face of the woman in a black very sharply, yet the face of the woman in the veil very blurry:

– and not only because of the veil, her mantelpiece is blurry too:

Only a person who would have seen a lot of photographs, with their different areas of focus (and better even, the one who made such photos ​​himself) would paint in this way:

It should be noted that with time Breitner started to use photography not only as a ‘food for though’ for his paintings; at some point he realized that these images have their own artistic value, and began to take and develop pictures for their own sake:

In the end of 2011 we went to a very interesting exhibition at the the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, called Snapshotabout the use of photography by the artists of the late 19th – early 20th century:

Unfortunately, it was not allowed to take pictures at the exhibition (what an irony!), so I only have a couple of the pirate images (one of them, by the way, is another painting by Breitner, that was created with the help of photos of the same place):

Similar to the cityscapes, Breitner used photography to capture the poses of his (semi)nude  models, too.

Many more of such photographs are known, I only selected those were he used a mirror. In some of those we can also see Breitner himself (and they are also self-portraits to some extent, therefore):

In the case of some of his models, we know quite a lot about them; for example, the name of this woman is Maria Catharina Josephine Jordan. She later became the artist’s wife and posed for many of his works. (Although the same phrase can probably be swapped – she posed for many of his works, and (therefore) became his wife; I do not know how causal attribution was arranged this time).

But I know that based on these photographs Breitner also painted a series of ‘Nudes before a mirror’:

These are very interesting works, but it’s not them but more “dressed” woman made his major contribution in the ‘mirrors in art’ theme.

In the Netherlands, at least, this young lady trying her earring in front of the mirror is as almost famous as the Pearl Girl by Jan Vermeer, an absolute art blockbuster.

Interestingly, the woman here wears kimono, and this is not a sign that she is Japanese, or that she is in (came from) Japan. Around that time in Europe everything ‘Japanese’ became incredibly fashionable, this wave of enthusiasm even got its own name, japonism. The phenomenon was evident in everything – in design, interiors, fashion, and art, too;  Van Gogh, for example, also had several works based on the ‘Japanese’ motifs.

I do not know whether Breitner did some photo sessions for this painting, too, or used already available images of the naked woman whom he would “dressed” already in the painting (most likely the former, as my story will show later). But in any case, we can only guess now, since there are not known photographs of this woman in kimono.

Which I would really love to see – because, in fact, what we see in this painting is impossible, optically speaking (and therefore the photographs had to show something different). It is the same Venus Effect at play – we wouldn’t be able to see the face of the woman, or if we would (like on this painting) she wouldn’t be able to see herself, and his wouldn’t be able to try her earring.

My version is that he would take the photo and then made a general composition based on it (the figure/kimono), but then the woman’s face would be inserted later (and perhaps based on another photograph).

There are at least two more versions of this painting  – one more with the earring:

And another, with the woman arranging her hair:

One eye in the mirror surface can be an allusion to the Titian’s Venus:

All these works indeed resemble something ‘Japanese’, and not only because of the “kimono”; their general composition and style borrows a lot from the Japanese prints, especially from the series of geishas with their mirrors:

Katushika Hokusai – Courtesan with mirror (1826)

In the next picture we also see “kimono”, and the “mirror”, but it’s also the moment to introduce the pre-announced tristesse, or the “sadness”.

The model for the painting is also known, her name is Geesje Kwak; it doesn’t sound Dutch, and it is not – she was coming from Friesland, the province on the North of the Netherlands, with quite a distinctive culture and language.

She looks very young, and she really is: she was only 15-16 years old when she posed for Breitner (she was born in 1877, and their first session happened in 1893). It is believed that their relationship was “purely working”: for her sessions she received a salary, and during the sessions her older sister was in the studio, too.

But it’s still noticeable that Breitner had very special relations to this model: not only we have a large number of photographs (by the way, we don’t know a single photo with this girl portrayed nude or semi-nude), and then the paintings, but also their general atmosphere is incredibly lyrical (not generally typical for his works).

Here are some more pictures:

And this is, for example, already a painting made with the use of this photo:

There are also a few sketches, but it is not clear what they are, whether these are the first studies based on the photograph, or the ‘story-board’ for the photograph itself:

There are several versions of paintings with the “red kimono”, and two – with the “white” one.

One of them also became super-famous, as well as the Woman with the Earring above:

This whole series, of ‘kimono girls’ by Breitner, is very well known in the Netherlands, where it became a part of the ‘cultural knowledge’, but I assume is little known outside the country.

For example, I did not know anything about it, till at some point I read this book Meisjes in Kimono (Girls in kimono):

In addition to one painting of the girl with a mirror (the one I showed above), there is another one, very similar to it. For this second work we have a sketch (or again, a plan for shooting):

Here is the painting:

It has the same ‘issues’ with the mirror as I explained before: the girl wouldn’t be able to see herself if she sees us (and we see her) – unless the artist is present himself in this mirror reflection:

Below is later photograph, taken in 1895,  when two sisters (the elder also had an interesting name, Niesja). It was made just before they sailed to South Africa, where their family decided to emigrate.

And where two years later Geesjie died from, being only 22 years old by then.

Despite the fact that “nothing” was between them, Breitner apparently had hard time copying with this news about the death of his model. For instance, he stopped painting any models after that (to my knowledge); or rather, there is only one portrait of the ‘nude’ made after 1899; that one:

Is there a mirror in it? And who was the model? Do we need to see the photograph the painting is based on?


Despite all these wonderful “kimonos in the mirror,” Breitner mostly remained known the the “Painter of Amsterdam”; his funeral was attended by the thousands of people who did not know him personally, but who knew and loved his works about this city and its inhabitants:

Gezicht op de Dam te Amsterdam (1895) – View on the Dam Square in Amsterdam

He is also one of the few artist who went into the Amsterdam slang: there is still the saying that Amsterdamers used in case particularly nasty weather: ‘t Is verdomme echt Breitnerweer (comparable to ‘Oh, this fucking Breitner Weather!’

But in my history of mirrors in art he he will enter for something else:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s