In the spring of 1893 George Hendrik Breitner started work on an enchanting series of paintings of girls dressed in Japanese kimonos, which would become icons of Dutch Japonism, and have since acquired a unique position in Dutch art history. The present lot is part of this group.
The history of the series
The practical facts about the origin of the series have been well recorded through the years: in the winter of 1892 Breitner spent several months in an eye-clinic to recover from an eye-infection. This temporary deterioration of his eye-sight was caused by an unknown illness which he had caught in the summer of 1892. After leaving the clinic in the spring of 1893, the 35-year old artist moved into a new studio on the Lauriergracht 8 in Amsterdam. He remained there until 1899. In his new studio, Breitner constructed a Japanese environment with the artifacts that he had acquired: several kimonos in blue, red and white, some oriental carpets and Japanese screens. The artist put a lot of energy in the preparations for these works. The main model for the series, Geesje Kwak, walked around the studio in the kimonos and Breitner made photographs and pencil sketches of her in various positions.
Breitner and Japan
The reasons why Breitner turned to this subject or why he only painted a limited number of them in a relatively short timespan are not quite known. The main reasons given by art-historians are a sense of escapism after his illness, a desire to renew his artistic skills and a fashionable fascination with the arts of Japan. Breitner did not express himself much about the reasons for these paintings in his letters. There is only one letter which contains a reference to his interest in Japan. This much quoted letter was written to the wife of his friend, the artist Herman van der Weele (1852-1930) in 1892/1893, and shows an appreciation of the qualities of Japanese fabrics and a general excitement about the exotic world of Japanese art: 'Laatst heb ik van jelui gedroomd en dat jelui heel rijk waren en prachtig woonden en dat ik met U en Herman in een vertrek daarvan zat, met zulke prachtige stoffen en behangen, dat ik mij niet kan verzadigen er naar te kijken en gij hadt een zwarte bril op net als ik nu, maar die was zo verbazend mooi en stond U zoo goed, als dat alleen maar in een droom mogelijk is en uw costuum was prachtig diep rood blauw zwart met exotische figuren daarin geweven en de wanden waren geel en rose, enfin het was een wonder van pracht en ik wou dat het mijn huis was zoodat jelui nu bij mij thee zaten te drinken net als ik toen bij jelui en dat mijn oogen weer heel waren en dat we ieder honderdduizend gld in de week te verteren hadden, dan lieten we een mooi jacht bouwen en zeilden allemaal naar het land van den Mikado, om daar eens te kijken.' (see: Bergsma, Ibid., 2001, pp. 15-16). A remark which leaves no doubt about a Japanese influence can be found in a letter to his friend Willem Witsen, where Breitner mentiones his Japansche vrouwtjes (Japanese women) (see: R.J.A. te Rijdt, Rond 1900: Kunst op papier in Nederland, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, 2000, p. 52).
It is likely that Breitner also came in contact with examples of Japonisme (the assimilation and influence of Japanese art in Western art) during a prolonged stay in Paris in 1884. There was a great interest in Western Europe and America at the time for the arts and civilization of Japan. This mysterious country had only become accessible to foreign travelers after 1854. In the decades to follow, Japanese art was being shown at world fairs in major cities. The appreciation was no longer an ethnical and anthropological interest but was now also aesthetical. Japanese decorative arts and prints were sold in specialist shops and exhibitions of Japanese prints were regularly held. Artists like J. Whistler, W. Merritt Chase, J. Singer Sargent, E. Manet, E. Degas, C. Monet and A. Stevens were intrigued by Japanese art and absorbed influences in their own work in the 1870's. Vincent van Gogh, whom Breitner had met in the 1870's, felt a deep personal interest in Japanese art and civilization and underwent these influences more personally than Breitner.
Throughout the years Breitner repeatedly felt a strong urge to renew his skills as an artist. Following his move to Amsterdam in 1886, he even enrolled as a student at the Rijksacademie voor Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam, although he had already gained a formidable reputation by that time. In 1893 he set himself the challenge with the kimono-girl series to draw and paint the figure, a technique that had posed many problems before. He painstakingly forced himself to concentrate on a steady handling of details and balanced use of colours.
That these efforts paid off is clearly visible in the present lot. Like the others in the series, this painting possesses a delicate tone and tranquility which is in sharp contrast to his impressionistic street scenes. The girls in the compositions seem to be part of an exotic dreamworld in comparison to the rough maids who figure in Breitner's outdoor scenes. He focused mainly on rendering the decorative components of the kimono fabric and the patterns on the screen. However Breitner also absorbed the two-dimensional style and the compositional elements of the Japanese print. The various decorative fields are very clearly defined but still form a coherent whole and the rich colours form strong contrasts within this painting. In this way he took the interpretation of Japanese art further than contemporaries such as Willem de Zwart (1862-1931) and Marinus van de Maarel (1857-1921). The lack of depth and the use of even light are also indebted to Japanese art.
Breitner's contemporary, the artist Philip Zilcken (1857-1930) expressed himself enthousiastically about Breitner's use of colour: 'Wanneer, zooals hij in de laatsten tijd wel eens deed, Breitner een meisje schildert in een Japansche japon, dan is 't hem niet te doen om het kostuum, om den maskerade-kant van de voorstelling, om min of meer zuivere ethnologische authenticiteit, - maar, hij wordt in de eerste plaats getroffen door de mooie tegenstelling die zulk een witte of vermiljoen-roode rijk geborduurde japon maakt tegen een dof zwart meubel, een goudgeel kussen of een puissant gekleurd oostersch tapijt.' (see: Bergsma, Ibid., 2001, p. 31).
The paintings of the girls in kimono can be divided into two types of composition: a girl reclining on a sofa, either to the left or the right and a girl standing before a mirror. In the group of the reclining girl, eight works are recorded: four in Dutch museum collections (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Gemeentemuseum, The Hague and Rijksmuseum Twente, Enschede (see: Bergsma, Ibid., 2001, respectively figs. 22, 34, 10 and 23). The other four are in private collections: besides the present lot, one painting was sold in these rooms on 28 October 2003 (fig. 3), one painting of which the whereabouts are unknown (this work is only known through black and white illustrations, but it seems that the girl is wearing a red kimono) and another painting which shows a composition midway between the reclining girl and the girl standing, namely a girl sitting in front of a mirror (red kimono) (see: Bergsma, Ibid., 2001, respectively figs. 37, 17 and 16).
The girl who has become the symbol of the kimono-series was Geesje Kwak, a young hatseller from Zaandam who had moved to Amsterdam in 1880 (fig. 1, fig 2). She was sixteen at the time she modelled for Breitner. He met her in the spring of 1893 when she had moved in with her sister Anna, who had also posed for the artist. Geesje, with her large eyes, slender body and frail face, formed a remarkable figure in the large kimono. Breitner let her wonder around his studio in kimono, holding a doll or a vase. He would either photograph her poses or draw them. The paintings however were not intended as portraits of Geesje, they were exhibited with neutral titles such as 'girl in red kimono' or 'the earring'. Breitner was also not interested in transforming his model into a Japanese girl. As one critic put it, Geesje remained Geesje and was not turned into a Geisha. For both Breitner and Geesje, the modelling sessions and resulting works turned out to be a unique moment in their lives: Geesje emigrated to South Africa with one of her sisters shortly afterwards in 1895 and sadly died there only four years later at the age of twenty-two.
Throughout the 20th century the kimono-girls have significantly gained in importance. The series have become icons of the 19th century and of Dutch Japonisme. The individual paintings have been included in major exhibitions and publications on the subject (for instance in 'Le Japonisme' at the Galeries nationales du Grand Palais in Paris, 1988 and 'Imitatie en Inspiratie. Japanse invloed op Nederlandse kunst van 1650 tot heden' at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 1992). The aesthetic beauty and accessibility of the composition has been greatly admired in contrast to some of Breitner's other perhaps less accessible works. It was only in 2001 that a special exhibition and publication was devoted to this series (Rijksmuseum Twenthe, Enschede).
Breitner's kimono girls have been placed in a justified international perspective in important publications on Japonism. For Klaus Berger, Breitner was the first important artist from Holland to absorb Japonism: 'In Holland artists did not await the summons of Art Nouveau and Symbolism before taking their cue from Japan. In the solid painting of George Hendrik Breitner [..] there is no difficulty in seeing what Japonisme had to offer.' (see: Berger, Ibid., p. 277). In his overview on Japonism, Siegfried Wichmann wrote on the appeal of the kimono on western artists: 'Whistler, Monet, Breitner, Klimt and others attempted to reproduce the brilliance of the colours, the unfamiliar contrasts and the sheen of the fabrics in their paintings, some of which have been called 'kimono still lifes'. [..] Breitner was particularly fascinated by the grotesque effect created by the wing-like sleeves and the full skirt with the splashes of pattern all over it. The shallow depth of the picture [Stedelijk Museum], the almost overflowing areas of colour, show the Japanese influence' (see: S. Wichmann, Japonism. The Japanese influence on Western art since 1858, London, 1981, pp. 19-20). In the catalogue of the important Breitner retrospective at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam in 1994 (see: Bergsma, Ibid., 1994, p. 152), it was concluded that it is only a small step from Breitner's kimono girls to the Jugendstil-portraits by Gustave Klimt and the fauvistic interiors by Henri Matisse.
The present lot and its companions from the series have become classics of Dutch Impressionism. And the appearance on the artmarket is rare.