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 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 prepared a Japanese environment with the artifacts that he had bought: 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 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, op.cit., 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, in: Rond 1900, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, 2000, p. 52).
Earlier in his career, Breitner had already shown a haphazard interest in exotic cultures. Whilst still living in the Hague, he painted the African model Adolf Boutar various times at Pulchri Studio. In his notebooks from the 1880's he recorded titles of fashionable and influential literature on Japan. He also made some drawings of a girl wearing a kimono. However, these works were fragments in an oeuvre which focussed on quite different subjects. Breitner, the self-confessed peintre du peuple, had obtained a reputation in his career as a bohemien, a risktaker in life and work, the painter of a shocking realism and a chroniquer of the hardships of working class life. His works are characterised by an unconventional use of colour and rough brushwork, with little attention to detail.
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 civilisation of Japan. This mysterious country had only become accessible to foreign travellers after 1854. In the decades to follow, Japanese art was being shown at worldfairs in major cities. The appreciation was no longer an ethnical and anthropological interest but was now also esthetical. 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 civilisation 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 (the art academy) 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 quality of the present lot. Like the others in the series, this painting possesses a delicate tone and tranquility which is in sharp contrast to the impressionistic streetscenes. 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 focussed 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 preparatory sketch (fig. 4) shows a strong emphasis on the various horizontal lines in the composition, whereas in the series of a girl standing in front of the mirror all emphasis is on the play of vertical lines. 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, David Artz and Marinus van de Maarel. The lack of depth and the use of even light are also indebted to Japanese art.
In his overview of Japonisme in Western art, Klaus Berger describes the present lot specifically as follows: "In that same period, Breitner painted several variations on the subject of a lady in a kimono: not as a fashion plate - in the mannier of Alfred Stevens' Japanese Dress - but as a pretext for a decorative composition. Girl in a red kimono is an example of the way in which the movement of curves against straight lines, cool against warm colours, differing textile patterns against each other, almost abolishes thematic content and transposes it into another, poetic reality. Breitner's Impressionist Realism became a form of Post-Impressionism and pointed in a direction which Gauguin, for instance, had set out with totally different preconceptions. It reveals no symbolistic or proto-Expressionist undertones" (Berger, op.cit., p. 277). Prior to this, the author Willem Steenhoff had already commented on the fine use of colour (A. Pit a.o., George Hendrik Breitner, Indrukken en biografische aantekeningen van A. Pit, W. Steenhoff, Jan Veth en Dr W. Vogelsang [..], Amsterdam, 1904-1908, p. 53): "Buiten de snedigheid van uitdrukking - Breitner's tekening - is door ieder opgebracht verftoetsje een kostelijkheid op zichzelf, welke zich doorproeven laat als een raffinement van kleurenzin." As is visible in the present lot, Breitner's aim was to render the fabrics and colours as rich in colour as possible. Breitner's contemporary, the artist Philip Zilcken 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." (Bergsma, op.cit., 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, op.cit, 2001, respectively figs. 22, 34, 10 and 23). The other four are in private collections: besides the present lot, one painting is in a Dutch private collection (girl in a white kimono), 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 wich 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, op.cit., 2001, respectively figs. 43, 17 and 16). In comparing the three other paintings in private collections with the present lot, its strikingly high quality shows a close relation to the paintings in museum collections, especially with the famous 'Girl in red kimono' kept at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (fig. 6). The sizes of the works are more or less within a similar range. The other compositional type form a group of four recorded works which show a girl in kimono trying on an earing while standing in front of a mirror. One of these was sold in these rooms on 18 April 2000, lot 182.
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. She was sixteen at the time she modelled for Breitner. He met her in spring 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 (see figs. and ). 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.
Breitner had started to use photography as a serious tool in his art around 1889, just four years before he began work on the kimono-series. 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 archive of approximately 2.500 photographs were rediscovered and his working methods have since then been interpreted anew. Arthistorians 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 surprisingly 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 the model as well. Breitner never expressed himself much about his photography and the relation to his paintings. He probably feared the scorn of contemporary critics. It is known that he was not the only one to use photography as an aide-de-memoire. Contemporaries such as Willem Witsen, Edouard Karsen and Isaac Israels also employed the medium. Adriaan Venema stated that when the artist took up photography, he literally took more distance from his subject, as the photoghraph acted as a filter between himself and the world. The subject merged with the entire composition and blended into the background. He considered the kimono girl-series exemplary of this (see A. Venema, G.H. Breitner 1857-1923, Bussum 1981, p. 258).
Geesje was young and frail and looks innocent in these grown-up kimonos and the presence of the little doll accentuates this. The type of kimono she wears has been identified as one which was worn by unmarried girls. Between 1885 and 1895, Breitner also drew and painted nudes in similar positions, which led critics to remark that there was a rather thin line between the exotic and erotic. The poses of the painted nudes were more or less the same as those in the kimono girl-series and it cannot be denied that the contrast between innocence and experience creates a certain sensual atmosphere in these works.
Public reception of the kimono girls has changed throughout the years. One thing that critics and art historians have always agreed on is that this series form an isolated period within Breitner's oeuvre and Dutch arthistory in general. As Adriaan Venema has put it: "Maar een feit blijft dat de serie van de 'Japanse meisjes' begin- en eindpunt is bij Breitner." (see Venema, op.cit., p. 256). During his lifetime, critics were primarily interested in Breitner's military scenes and Amsterdam streetscenes. Some were captured by the kimono girl-series, others less so. Some thought the girls were too rough, displaying too little elegance. As one critic remarked: "Thans vloekt het meisje met haar plebeosch uiterlijk, mismaakt van armen en handen bovendien, met de rijk-Japansche omgeving" (Niewe Rotterdamsche Courant, 23 october 1894; see R. Bionda a.o., De schilders van Tachtig, Zwolle 1991, p. 140). The critic A.C. Loffelt wrote in 1897: "de overigen [schilderijen] stellen voor Japansche vrouwen in gebloemde kleeding, het hoofd rustende op kussens; vrouwmenschen van verdacht uiterlijk en ongegeneerd van houding." (Nieuws van de Dag, 19 february 1897; pressdocumentation R.K.D, The Hague). "Japansch Figuur is een hideus werk vooral wat de kleur betreft; zulk rood is een vergissing" according to an anynomous critic in 1902. Another critic remarked in 1933 that the poses were: "gedwongen en niet altijd verantwoorde houdingen" (see Bergsma, op.cit., 2001, p. 28).
In 1901 a large jubilee exhibition was organised of Breitner's work at the Amsterdam art society Arti et Amicitiae. On this occasion a comprehensive album was published with articles and illustrations of his work. The artist Jan Veth wrote some biographical notes. He described the kimono-girl paintings as follows: "Uit deze periode zijn een aantal tusschen Breitners werk bijna vreemd aandoende stukken van gekostumeerde vrouwenfiguurtjes in het atelier naar model geschilderd, - van sujet een weinig aan Alfred Stevens herinnerd, maar, ofschoon minder delikaat gekoesterd, heel veel pootiger van doen. Oefeningen voor oog en hand, of studies in pozitief schilderen zou men deze merkwaardige en kleurrijke schilderijtjes kunnen noemen. [..] Maar spoedig kwamen hier op de Lauriergracht ook nog belangrijker werken aan de orde". (Pit, op.cit., pp. 130-133). Vogelsang was more enthousiastic about the uniqueness of the series: "Is niet alle liefde voor concentratie van kleur uitgedrukt in die vermillioenrode kimono-vrouwtjes op donker-bruin rooden divan, tegen rooden schot? Is hier niet de Hollandsche 'Symphony in Red', zoo geheel anders dan de Engelschen in haar eerlijke onopgesmuktheid, in haar machtigen gloed? [...] Zeker, het is geen psychologische schildering - de meisjes zijn en blijven modellen, ze hebben geen levensrichting [..]." (Pit, op.cit., p. 162).
Throughout the 20th century the kimono-girl 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 in Holland (see Bergsma, op.cit., 2001). The kimono girls have often been reproduced in articles and have graced the covers of exhibition catalogues.
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, op.cit., 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.). In the catalogue of the important Breitner retrospective at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam in 1994 (Bergsma, op.cit., 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. The appearance on the artmarket of such an important icon of Dutch Japonism and indeed, of Dutch Impressionism in general, may be considered a unique event.