'Vrachtwagen, Rokin' is an outstanding and characteristic example of Amsterdam School impressionism, of which Breitner was the pioneer, and strikes by its balanced composition, its subtle harmony of greyish tones and form, and its superb brushwork. The picture's appearance on the art market follows a period of almost a century of private ownership in the same family since 1916, when it was last sold by the artdealer E.J. van Wisselingh in Amsterdam. Its last public appearance was in Zeist in 1973. Pictures of this quality are rare and only a few have remained in private hands.
The picture dates from the artist's later years and captures the passing of a horse drawn cart on the Rokin near the Langebrugsteeg on a grey day. As was his speciality, Breitner brilliantly translates a swiftly passing ordinary moment of street activity in a beautiful painterly unity of colour and form. The snap shot character of the scene confirms that Breitner used a photo as the basis for his composition. Although the exact photo is not known, the watercolour version of the subject (64 x 90.5 cm.; present location unknown, last seen at the Michelsen sale at Frederik Muller & Cie., Amsterdam, 3 December 1918, lot 297), lacking the girl in blue and with a slightly different cart, is probably close to what Breitner saw on that particular day, when he left the building of Maatschappij Arti et Amicitiae and when he immediately took his camera to capture it.
As explained by P.H. Hefting (in: De Foto's van Breitner, The Hague 1989) Breitner never slavishly followed his photographic images in the conceivement of his paintings. As painter 'pur sang', they were stimuli in the creative process, meant to serve as 'aides memoires' for swiftly disappearing moments. Breitner immediately translated these impressions - caught in photos and drawings - in 'grootsche dingen' (meaning his paintings).
Thus, in the present picture, Breitner moved the horse and cart parallel and close to the picture plane and used an elongated horizontal format to enhance the effect of the close up view. The horse and cart fill almost the entire width of the picture, while at the same time the elongated format enhances the viewer's engagement and sympathy with the scene. The girl in blue - probably a motiv of Breitner's own invention - contrasts with the quiet surrender of the horse. She seems to have spontaneously climbed on the cart for a free ride and gazes freely outwards towards the viewer, thus expanding the picture plane towards the front. She wears a light-blue dress with a golden hat and scarlet scarf which are colourful accents in the picture, masterly applied in swift brushstrokes. Here Breitner shows not only his great skill, but also his admiration for the Dutch painters of the past such as Frans Hals (born circa 1580-1666).
The scene is set against a row of monumental facades on the eastern side of the Rokin, of which the outlines of the roofs form a lively interplay of verticals and horizontals against the grey sky. In accordance with the shape of the picture, Breitner accentuated the horizontal lintels in the row of buildings on the left. He made numerous sketches for this row of buildings, most notably the one, recorded in the Bendien collection, The Hague (black chalk on paper, 16 x 10 cm., see: J.C. van der Waals, in: Museumjournaal, III, 1957/8, pp. 104-7, ill.no. XX). The drawing contains detailed colour instructions for later adaptation.
Breitner painted numerous views of the Rokin throughout his career. It side of the Rokin, of which ths of inspiration in the city, after he moved to Amsterdam from The Hague in 1886. The Rokin was one of the main traffic artery's in town, leading to the Dam, the heart of trade and commerce in the otherwise expanding city. The Rokin also housed the Maatschappij Arti et Amicitiae, a society of artists, founded in 1839, of which Breitner became a member in 1887 and where in 1901/2 a major solo exhibition of his work took place.
The group of paintings of the Rokin, which reads as a record of Breitner's impressions of his life in and around Arti, include amongst others the picture of 1896 in the collection of the Nederlandsche Bank; that of 1897 in the Rijksmuseum; a View of the Rokin at Dusk of circa 1895 in the Amsterdams Historimoh Museum; the Rokin looking towards the South with the Nieuwezijdskapel, of circa 1910, in the Rijkmuseum and Breitner's very last picture, from 1923, in the Amsterdams Historisch Museum (see: K. Keijer, Breitner's Amsterdam: Schilderijen en Foto's, Bussum, 2004, pp. 43-59, with ills.).
All these views are pictures of beauty and engage us in congealed moments of activity of common people, in line with what Breitner had formulated as his ambition in a letter from 28 March 1882 to his benefactor A.P. van Stolk: 'Ik zelf, ik zal de mensch schilderen op de straat en in de huizen, de straten en huizen, die ze gebouwd hebben, 't leven vooral. Le Peintre du Peuple zal ik trachten te worden of liever ben ik al, omdat ik het wil. Geschiedenis wilde ik schilderen en zal ik ook, maar de geschiedenis in haar uitgebreidsten zin. Een markt, een kaai, den rivier, een bende soldaten onder de gloeiende zon.'
Breitners city views in Amsterdam are the visualisation of this ambition. Here, strolling through the streets, he felt at his best, surrounded by a constant flow of new impressions, which were all suited to his restless character.
As an ambitious painter of modern life, Breitner was one of the leading personalities among the Tachtigers ('the Eighties Movement'); a movement striving for l'art pour l'art adagium in art, literature and visual arts alike. The group included figures such as the painter Willem Witsen (1860-1923), the author Adriaan Roland Holst (1888-1976), the painter Jan Veth (1864-1925), the composer Alfons Diepenbrock th862-1921) and others. All the major members were Amsterdam focused, thus changing the artistic scene from The Hague to Amsterdam and giving impressionism a city rather than a landscape orientation. Hence Amsterdam impressionism. But although they were striving for the modern, the Tachtigers were also aware and greatly attached to Dutch tradition; in Breitner's case the tradition of the cityviews by painters, such as Jan van der Heyden (1637-1712) in the 17th 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 therefore never adapted to the colourful palette of French impressionists. Their work was intended to be Dutch in character (in: H.E. van Gelder, Kunstgeschiedenis der Nederlanden, Utrecht 1946).
The Van Wisselingh Gallery, founded in 1884, following the artistic trend, also moved from The Hague to Amsterdam. In 1892 their gallery was opened in the Kalverstraat and two years later they moved to the Spui. The founder of the gallery, E.J. van Wisselingh, played a key role in establishing the painters of the new generation, giving them a platform for exposure. They were daring enough to not lend themselves too much towards 'de eischen, welke de ingekankerde wansmaak van de menigte zoo gaarne stelt; hij heeft zelfs geen te ver gevoerde preferentie voor een of andere kunst; maar hij bewijst met de schilderijen, welke hij exposeert, dat hij eenvoudig zoekt naar mooie, dat is echte kunst, en die ook daar zelfs weet te waarderen waar de uiting nog zwak is' (see: J.F. Heybroek, 'Breitner en Kunsthandel van Wisselingh & Co', in: Breitner, exhibition catalogue, 1994, pp. 54).
Breitner had a contract with E.J. van Wisselingh & Co. This gave the gallery the exclusive right to exhibit and sell his work. Van Wisselingh's clients were mostly private collectors, among them the pioneers of modern art collecting in the Netherlands, Mr and Mrs Drucker-Fraser and A.J.A. van Abbe. Inpreferentie voor een of andere kunst; maar hij bewijs May 1912 he wrote: 'Amice, De sponning van schilderijen, welke hij exposeert, dat hij eenvoudig .6. Met hartelijke dat is echte kunst, en die ook daar zelfs weet te waa Breitner, uiting nog zwak is' (see: J.F. Heybroek, 'Breitner en size of the Wisselingh & Co', in: Breitner, exhibition catalo. We can therefore date the work to circa 1912.