2. A snapshot of Breitner’s career
George Hendrik Breitner was born in 1857 in Rotterdam, a city of which he later wrote that it never held much attraction for him.1 In 1876 he left Rotterdam for The Hague, where he attended the Royal Academy of Art for four and a half years, finishing in the summer of 1880. He joined the artists’ society Pulchri Studio (1880) and was asked to contribute to the Panorama Mesdag (1880-1881), which can still be visited today.2 In the years 1882-1883 he regularly saw Vincent van Gogh, with whom he often roamed the streets ‘to look for figures and nice scenes’, as Van Gogh wrote.3 In 1886 he moved to Amsterdam where, with a short interval from 1903 to 1906, he remained until the end of his life. Although he undertook several journeys and short trips, Amsterdam was the centre of his work and the source of his inspiration. In 1889 he became a member of the Amsterdam artists’ society Arti et Amicitiae. There, in 1901-1902, when he had passed the peak of his career but was still receiving largely positive reviews, a major retrospective was held. In the years that followed, critics became less enamoured of Breitner’s work, occasionally accusing him of being repetitive. Breitner produced very few paintings after 1914 and from that date ceased to maintain his own studio.4
Breitner is not easy to categorise as a painter. He is often regarded as an Impressionist although his palette is strictly speaking too dark. His touch is also too free to be called that of a Realist. His true place was not within any mainstream tendency or movement. He saw little in Van Gogh’s work. In 1892, after viewing an exhibition, he wrote: ‘I can’t help it, but to me it seems like art for Eskimos, I cannot enjoy it. I honestly find it coarse and distasteful, without any distinction, and what’s more, he has stolen it all from Millet and others’.5 It should be added that Van Gogh was equally unappreciative of Breitner´s work.6 None of the new movements emerging after the turn of the century, such as the Luminist style of Piet Mondrian and Jan Sluijters, were to Breitner’s taste either.7 Apparently a young Kees Maks, who was periodically coached by Breitner, and between 1898 and 1914 used an adjoining studio, once painted a shadow blue, and Breitner remarked: ‘How on earth can a shadow be blue?’ To soften the blow, we learn, he added that he found it harder still to appreciate Jan Sluijters and his even more modernist experiments.8
Although Breitner kept his distance from younger generations and his work was judged more critically after 1900, he did not sink into oblivion. In 1917 a relief committee was set up to help him deal with financial problems, soon raising about 60,000 guilders. When the artist died in 1923, his widow carried on receiving maintenance from this fund.9 Breitner certainly struggled with finances all his life. A large proportion of his letters deals with money matters. However, his permanent shortage of money did not stop Breitner from spending considerable sums of money on things that he enjoyed such as cycling and photography.10 He made thousands of exposures, of which he printed hundreds, in small as well as large formats, and he owned several cameras.
1 Letter to A.P. van Stolk, October 1883. See P.H. Hefting, G.H. Breitner. Brieven aan A.P. van Stolk, Utrecht 1970, p. 49.
2 Yvonne van Eekelen (ed.), Magisch Panorama. Panorama Mesdag, een belevenis in ruimte en tijd, Zwolle/The Hague 1996.
3 Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, c. 11 July 1883 (letter 361 in Vincent van Gogh, The Letters. The Complete Illustrated and Annotated Edition (eds. Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten and Nienke Bakker), Amsterdam 2009: ‘… om figuren te gaan zoeken en aardige gevallen’ (http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let361/letter.html).
4 Rieta Bergsma and Paul Hefting, ‘George Hendrik Breitner. “Le peintre du peuple”’, in idem (eds.), George Hendrik Breitner 1857-1923. Schilderijen, tekeningen, foto’s, Bussum 1994, pp. 26-27.
5 Letter to Johanna van der Weele (wife of Herman), 25 December 1892, cited by P.H. Hefting, ‘Brieven van G.H. Breitner aan H.J. van der Weele’, in 19de eeuwse Nederlandse schilderkunst. Een zestal studies, Haarlem 1977 (Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek vol. 27 ), pp. 148-149: ‘Ik kan het niet helpen, maar ik vind het kunst voor Eskimos, ik kan er niet van genieten. Ik vind het eerlijk grof en onhebbelijk, zonder de minste distinctie, en buitendien alles nog gestolen goedje van Millet en anderen’.
6 Idem, p. 129.
7 Rieta Bergsma and Paul Hefting, ‘George Hendrik Breitner. “Le peintre du peuple”’, in idem (eds.), George Hendrik Breitner 1857-1923. Schilderijen, tekeningen, foto’s, Bussum 1994, p. 27.
8 A.B. Osterholt, Breitner en zijn foto’s, Amsterdam 1974, unpaginated.
9 Rieta Bergsma and Paul Hefting, ‘George Hendrik Breitner. “Le peintre du peuple”’, in idem (eds.), George Hendrik Breitner 1857-1923. Schilderijen, tekeningen, foto’s, Bussum 1994, p. 28.
10 On the subject of cycling see, for example: P.H. Hefting, ‘Brieven van G.H. Breitner aan H.J. van der Weele’, in 19de eeuwse Nederlandse schilderkunst. Een zestal studies, Haarlem 1977 (Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek vol. 27 ), pp. 154-155.