George Hendrik Breitner was a prolific artist and can be seen as the embodiment of the Amsterdam Impressionist movement. Breitner's reputation as a painter of views of Amsterdam and scenes of everyday life rests on works of superior calibre of which many can be found in major (inter)national museum collections and on a very rare occasion in private hands.
Rotterdam born Breitner first moved to The Hague after being accepted at the Academy in 1876. In The Hague he came into contact with many of the leading artists of The Hague School. He joined Pulchri Studio in 1880 and worked together with Hendrik Willem Mesdag (1831-1915) and his wife Sientje Mesdag-van Houten (1834-1909) on the Panorama Mesdag in The Hague. Breitner's ideas and pictorial interest discerned themselves from his Hague School contemporaries. W. Jos de Gruyter, author on the Hague School, even states that some of Breitner's work is an introduction to expressionism. He specifically refers to a work titled 'Moonlight' from 1885 [fig. 1], which was also well appreciated by Vincent van Gogh. 'Moonlight', sold at Christie's Amsterdam in 1989 to the Musee d' Orsay in Paris and part of their permanent exhibit, is said to have impressed Van Gogh with its originality in both composition and colour scheme.
In 1881 Van Gogh had moved to The Hague. They had met when Theophile de Bock took Vincent to see the Panorama Mesdag. Breitner and Van Gogh set out together drawing the broad range of subjects that The Hague had to offer. Especially Van Gogh's choice of subjectmatter around that time clearly shows Breitner's influence [fig. 2-3]. After some time there a rift seems to have developed between the two artists. However Van Gogh remained appreciative of Breitner. In July 1883 he writes to his brother Theo: 'Breitner, who was totally unexpected because he seemed to have broken contact completely at one time, turned up yesterday. I was pleased, because - when I first moved here - it used to be very agreeable going out with him. I don't mean going out into the country but going out to look for characters and enjoyable experiences in the city itself. There isn't another person here in The Hague with whom I have ever done this, most find the city ugly and give everything in it a miss.'
In The Hague Breitner made a name for himself as a painter of military subjects. The military manoeuvres he witnessed in Scheveningen, Brabant and Arnhem inspired a series of powerful canvases. Even at that stage of his career he was interested in producing work that expressed his social commitment and concern with the plight of the less fortunate in life. His paintings from that period document the lives of workers and labourers in The Hague. In a letter of 1882 to his patron A.P. van Stolk, Breitner wrote: 'I myself, personally, shall paint the man on the street and people in the houses they have built, life is what I shall paint. I shall endeavour to become the painter of ordinary people...' (see: V. Hefting, G.H. Breitner in zijn Haagse Tijd, Utrecht 1970, p. 9).
Breitner moved to Amsterdam in 1886. With a population of half a million, Amsterdam was growing at an unprecedented rate and its building industry was booming. The city fascinated Breitner with its promise of untold opportunities to study subjects from everyday life. He took to the streets armed with a sketchbook and camera to record construction workers and labourers, glimpses of maidservants, and playing children. The gabled mansions along the canals provided the perfect backdrop for Amsterdam's many colourful characters. In the eyes of his contemporaries Breitner was the artist who knew how to render those elements to canvas that defined the attractive elements of the city. In 1901 the art critic C.W.H. Verster wrote in Onze Kunst, Voortzetting van de Vlaamse School II after seeing Breitners works of the Reguliersgracht that his paintings are: '...magnificent appeals for the conservation of this beautiful part of the Amstel-city (Amsterdam)'.
By the turn of the century Breitner was at the peak of his career. He had received numerous honours and took pride of place in many exhibitions. In 1895 he was made a Knight in the Order of Orange-Nassau and in the Order of Leopold. His work in the closing years of the 19th Century became increasingly challenging and confrontational, while his use of colour and contrast was bold and self-assured. Breitner was the master of the impression. He captured what he saw with vigorous brushstrokes: a fleeting moment, a fragment in time. With just a few, evocative lines he managed to conjure up a building, a hat or a scarf. Conveying an impression was painting at its purest. The eye does the rest. Breitner was a consummate master in seizing atmosphere and mood.
Along with Isaac Israels (1865-1934) and Willem Witsen (1860-1923), Breitner was amongst Amsterdam's foremost Impressionists. All three - with Breitner at the forefront - used the modern medium of photography in their efforts to capture the moment. Breitner's first photographs date from 1889. He developed his photos himself and certainly did not intend to exhibit them as works of art, they were just one part of his preparations. It was only in 1961 and 1974 that his archives of approximately 2.500 photographs were rediscovered and his working methods have since then been interpreted anew. Art historians have discovered that he did not copy his photos in his paintings in detail. Together with his pencil sketches they formed the basis for his compositions (see: Bergsma, op.cit., 1994, pp. 187-197). Critics in general have appreciated the honest and rough quality of his photos. For Breitner, who was known to be impatient with his work and had trouble with figure drawing, it was a wonderful solution to photograph any possible subject for his art.
So his photographs served as an aid to painting and were never intended to be works of art in themselves. In 1898 Breitner wrote a letter to K. Groesbeek, the manager of the distinguished art gallery E.J. van Wisselingh, and had the following to say about the role of photography in his work: 'My friend, I can do nothing about what Preyer chooses to say, especially if what he says is true. Besides, I indeed use photographs. It would be impossible to do things like this without them. How could I otherwise do an Amsterdam street. I make a rough drawing in my sketchbook. Preferably a study from a window. And a sketch for the details I want. But the composition as such is mine.' (see: A. Venema, op.cit., p. 171).
The present painting 'Gezicht op Keizersgracht hoek Reguliersgracht', which can be dated circa 1895, is a monumental example of his capacity to bring harmony between subject matter and technique. Various works by Breitner give a clear insight in how the present painting came to be. A number of photographs remain [fig. 4-5] and are kept in the collection of the Gemeente Archief, Amsterdam. A preparatory drawing in a sketchbook [fig. 6] is part of the collection of the Rijks Prentenkabinet, Amsterdam. The subject matter of the present painting was also used in a more subdued composition, most noticeably lacking the central attractive figure [fig. 7] in a private collection. Furthermore, a canvas which is clearly an impression of the same subject was sold at Christie's in 1999 [fig. 8]. All form the basis for the present painting which is without doubt the culmination of this series.
Although the Amsterdam Impressionists were striving for a new modernity, they were also aware and greatly attached to Dutch tradition: in Breitner's case the tradition of cityviews with forebearers such as Jan van der Heyden (1637-1712) in the 17th Century and Cornelis Springer (1817-1891) in the 19th Century. The art-historian A.M. Hammacher therefore observed that the Eighties Movement remained at its heart romantic and because of this never adapted the colourful palette of the French impressionists. Their work was intended to be Dutch in character (see: H.E. van Gelder, Kunstgeschiedenis der Nederlanden, Utrecht, 1946).
However, there is a link between the Amsterdam Impressionists and their French colleagues. When thinking of the Impressionists, the Dutch landscape and especially the Amsterdam canals and gables do not immediately come to mind. However Claude Monet (1840-1926), the quintessential Impressionist, paid no less than three visits to Holland. He said: 'all very amusing. Houses in every colour, mills by the hundred and delightful boats, exceptionally friendly Hollanders who almost all speak French.' He wrote to his friend Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) that there was enough to paint for an entire lifetime. A work by him depicting the Prins Hendrikkade, Amsterdam [fig. 9] is part of the permanent collection of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. The present painting may not have as bright a palette as that of the French Impressionists, but it does have a natural cosmopolitan feel and sophistication which is so characteristic of the subjects of Breitner's French counterparts. This is conveyed mostly by the metropolitan lady dressed in a fashionable fur pelerine on her promenade along the canal.
The scene is set on the Keizersgracht with 'en profile' the bridge spanning the Reguliersgracht and the bridge that crosses the Keizersgracht to the right. This junction of two important canals in the old centre of Amsterdam is considered to be one of the most beautiful and prestigious parts of the city. A row of monumental facades, both well defined in sure brushstrokes and executed using lively pigments, form the backdrop for a carriage crossing the bridge and an elegant strolling figure. The interplay of horizontals and verticals of the architecture and the strong verticals of the trees in the foreground result in a balanced and lively composition.
The present lot is an exceptional example of his work of the nineties: his style is broad, self-assured and mature. Breitner's Amsterdam is alive with movement. The beautifully executed background, the soft stillness of the canal waters and the elegant lady placed so boldly in the foreground make this composition both calm and confronting. The present painting may be considered a masterpiece in Breitner's oeuvre. It has not been on the market since it was purchased by the forefather of the present owners at Caramelli & Tessaro in 1916. Last exhibited in 1971 and thereafter unseen to the public, its appearance on the art market is an exciting event in Dutch auction history.