Before moving to Amsterdam in 1866, Breitner had already expressed his wish to become a socially engaged painter and regularly set out to draw in the working-class quarter of The Hague. In a letter to his patron A.P. van Stolk, dating from 1882, Breitner stated: "Ikzelf, ik zal de mensch schilderen op de straat en in de huizen die ze gebouwd hebben, 't leven vooral. Le peintre du peuple zal ik trachten te worden..." (Hefting, G.H.Breitner in zijn Haagse Tijd, Utrecht 1970, p. 9).
Amsterdam, with its half million inhabitants, new infrastructure and impressive building projects, provided the artist with an inspiring range of everyday life subject-matter. Roaming through the streets with his sketchbook and camera, Breitner recorded labourers at work on building-sites, young maids hurrying along the canals, horse-tram drivers, skippers on barges, workmen with dray-carts and in between it all the playing children.
In the present lot Breitner depicts a group of children dressed up for 'Hartjesdag', a typical local feast celebrated anually on the third monday of August. Wearing colourful costumes made of paper, boys and girls went through the streets of Amsterdam singing: "Hartjes jagen,/door de stal en door de wagen,/Haringpakkerij/een steek in je zij,/een roos al op je hoed,/morgen ben je dan weer goed" (De Tijd,10-12-1968). 'Hartjesdag' was also a day traditionally used to settle disputes and to light fire works and bonfires.
Breitner's bold brushstrokes and rythmic composition accentuate the movement of the children who are busy making the last adjustments to their paper sashes. With a few swift lines he has indicated their animated faces. Striking contrasts created by red, yellow and white suggest the festive atmosphere of the occasion.
In this picture, where technique and subject-matter blend so perfectly, one finds a vivid example of the style generated by the Amsterdam Impressionists, of which Breitner together with Isaac Israels and Willem Witsen were the instigators.