The Dutch painter George Hendrik Breitner made thousands of photographs over a period of many years, but during his lifetime almost nobody realised this . Photography is something on which he rarely commented.1 In his day, it was frowned upon for artists to use photographs; the painter’s observation and invention were much more highly valued than the use of a camera as mechanical drawing aid. In his book Korte geschiedenis der Hollandsche schilderkunst (a brief history of Dutch painting), published in the year Breitner died, the prominent critic Albert Plasschaert wrote about Breitner’s art: ‘in addition I believe that I can detect here and there the use of a camera (that danger)’.2
The discovery that Breitner had been such a prolific photographer would not happen until nearly 40 years after his death. In 1961 the Netherlands Institute for Art History (RKD) in The Hague received the gift of almost 2000 negatives and 300 prints from Hein Siedenburg. These had been left to him by his father J.H.H. (‘Joop’) Siedenburg, who had died recently and had been the owner of Buffa and sons, the art gallery that represented Breitner in his final years. Siedenburg is said to have been given the photographs by Breitner’s widow, Marie Jordan (1866-1948).
By the time the material arrived at the RKD and Breitner’s photographic activities became public, the use of photography by painters was much more favourably regarded. Comments in the press were on the whole positive. If it is the case that Breitner was concerned about the effect on his posthumous reputation, then Joop Siedenburg certainly seems to have waited, or more accurately, lived long enough to ensure that the negatives and prints were made public once they no longer posed a threat to Breitner’s status as a painter.
Since that time several more groups of Breitner’s negatives and prints have surfaced. A total of c. 2850 negatives and prints are currently known, and of these three quarters are in the collection of the RKD. The remaining groups are housed in Leiden University Library, Amsterdam City Archives and the Rijksmuseum.3 Breitner’s photographs continue to intrigue us to this day, 50 years since they were first discovered. Their number and diversity is so great that new insights can still be made and much remains to be said about his reasons for producing them, his motives for using them as well as his ‘manipulation’ of the photographic medium.
George Hendrik Breitner
Zelfportret van George Hendrik Breitner,
paper, gelatin silver print (DOP), black and white photograph ? x ? cm
The Hague, RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History, inv./cat.nr. BR 1450
1 Tineke de Ruiter, ‘Foto’s als schetsboek en geheugensteun’, in Rieta Bergsma and Paul Hefting (eds.), George Hendrik Breitner 1857-1923. Schilderijen, tekeningen, foto’s, Bussum (Thoth) 1994, p. 196. Photography is mentioned a few times in letters to his fellow painters Herman van der Weele and Willem Witsen. For the correspondence with Van der Weele see: 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. 127-173. A large part of the the Witsen correspondence is in the collection of the National Library of the Netherlands and can be consulted at www.geheugenvannederland.nl and at www.dbnl.org.
2 A. Plasschaert, Korte geschiedenis der Hollandsche schilderkunst. Van af de Haagsche School tot op den tegenwoordigen tijd, Amsterdam 1923, p. 122: ‘tevens lijkt mij hier en daar de hulp te erkennen van een photographisch toestel (dat gevaar)’. See also: Tineke de Ruiter, ‘Foto’s als schetsboek en geheugensteun’, in: Rieta Bergsma and Paul Hefting (eds.), George Hendrik Breitner 1857-1923. Schilderijen, tekeningen, foto’s, Bussum 1994, pp. 195-196.
3 The ‘Leiden collection’ consists primarily of c. 300 prints and was bought from A.B. Osterholt in 1984. This collector had in turn acquired them from the widow of Kees Maks. It was said that Maks bought them at the sale of Breitner’s studio contents (Frederik Muller & Co., Amsterdam 13 May 1924, lot no. 127). In his article ‘Notities over G.H. Breitner’ (Bulletin van het Rijksmuseum 16 (1968), p. 166) Paul Hefting stated that the Osterholt collection matched lot 127 in the sale catalogue; however the description of the lot suggests that this was a group of photographic reproductions. The 263 negatives of the Amsterdam City Archives were rediscovered on the premises in 1995, without it being possible to establish the provenance; the provenance of the c. 65 prints in the Rijksmuseum is unknown (it has often been assumed that they were part the estate of Breitner’s widow, but they do not appear on the very detailed inventory list, although their number and size would suggest they would have been included) A Dutch private collector bought ten prints in 2003 or 2004, one of which is now in the collection of LaSalle Bank, New York.