Breitner’s Girl in a Kimono series together for the first time

After the reopening of Japan to foreign trade in the 1850s and 1860s, European artists like Claude Monet, James McNeill Whistler and Vincent van Gogh were influenced by Japanese fine and decorative arts. One of Van Gogh’s friends and compatriots, George Hendrik Breitner, was inspired by the Japonisme trend to create a series of 13 paintings of a young girl wearing a kimono.

Breitner was born in Rotterdam in 1857. For the decade between 1876 and 1886 he studied and worked in The Hague where he explored working class areas of the city, sketching the people and places he encountered. He embraced the social realism movement and considered himself le peintre du peuple, the painter of the people. He moved to Amsterdam in 1886 where he was soon able to add photography to drawing and painting. Breitner took pictures of street life, people at work and going about their business in the city, some of the photographs reminiscent of the kind of work Jacob Riis was doing in the crowded and scary tenements of New York City at the same time.

Breitner was one of the first artists to use photos as studies for specific paintings, not just of street scenes but in the studio as well. He integrated his social realist perspective in his studio portraits, making a point of employing models from the working class. One of them was a milliner’s shopgirl named Geesje Kwak who, along with her sister Anna, posed for Breitner in around 1893-1895 when she was 16-18 years old. It was Geesje Kwak who would be immortalized as the girl in a kimono.

Japonisme had intrigued Breitner since he’d traveled to Paris in 1884. He collected Japanese woodcuts and in 1892 visited an exhibition of Japanese prints in The Hague. The show was his immediate inspiration for the kimono series. He acquired several Japanese kimonos and a pair of folding screens that he set up in his studio on the Lauriergracht canal. Geesje Kwak posed in the kimonos — one red, one white, one blue — against the backdrop of the folding screens on a bed draped in oriental rugs. She was paid for her time and there was no hanky panky going on; all strictly professional. Breitner kept meticulous records of which models posed for him when, for how long and at what rate.

Breitner’s work with Geesje Kwak ended when she emigrated to South Africa with her younger sister Niesje in 1895. Geesje died of tuberculosis in Pretoria in 1899, just shy of her 22nd birthday. The Girl in a Kimono series was not a success with critics initially, but today they are considered the pinnacle of the Dutch expression of Japonisme in the fine arts. The Rijksmuseum will celebrate the series with an unprecedented exhibition that brings together all of the Girl in a Kimono paintings, including a previously unpublished one from a private collection, plus the preliminary photographs, sketches and drawings Breitner used as studies for the paintings.

There have been exhibitions in the past devoted to this beloved theme of Breitner’s, but the paintings of Girl in a Kimono have never been displayed all together. Displaying all the Girl in a Kimono works together, combined with the preliminary studies in the form of drawings, sketches and photographs, as well as Breitner’s easel and paint box, gives the exhibition above all an impression of the way in which the painter went about his work in his studio on the Lauriergracht in Amsterdam. […]

In total there are 20 paintings on display, including 13 Girl in Kimono works and one nude. Furthermore, 15 drawings and 15 photographs will be displayed, plus Japanese prints. Moreover, there are two beautiful kimonos from the same period as the ones worn in the paintings.

Breitner: Girl in Kimono opens on February 20th and runs through May 22nd at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

14 thoughts on “Breitner’s Girl in a Kimono series together for the first time

  1. Stunning! I especially love the photographs — did the cat make it into any of the paintings? I would have guessed the girl in the photos was younger than 16, though.

  2. Lovely paintings, though no Japanese woman then or now would wear a kimono so loosely or sloppily, nor would she slouch or lie around in one…I realize the aim was art not cultural authenticity, but it is one of my minor pet peeves seeing kimono–which are formalwear that cost thousands of dollars to buy, take an hour or more to put on (after years of training), and in which one must maintain correct posture at all times & even walk and move in certain ways–treated by Westerners as bathrobes. *Sigh*. Still, lovely paintings 🙂

    1. Excellent point beautifully made. These kinds of fashions for the other, the foreign, the exotic usually focus on the aesthetics and pay little attention to the culture behind it. Thank you for that. :thanks:

    1. It is entirely my pleasure. The Rijksmuseum is always very generous with press materials. I wish all institutions were so willing to share properly high resolution images. If it were up to me, every photo would be this huge.

  3. Very interesting. While reading this article, I realized I was actually familiar with both Breitner’s paintings and his photography but had never realized how closely connected those were and I never knew the story of his social involvement.

    Oh, and of course lgb is absolutely right about the huge difference between how kimonos are worn in Japanese tradition and the way they were used in western Japonisme fashion. I think Breitners work just reflects the local (in this case Dutch) view at the time.

    I just keep looking at the pictures though… I am interested in textiles and this is such a study of those as well (I did always wonder about the combination of the kimono and the rug. Those things may all come from east of the Netherlands, I really don’t think they came from the same place)

  4. We have a video tape of it, so we must have liked it for a long time. Positively historical, video tape. To all the intelligent people of good taste who visit this site, I say “watch Topsy-Turvy”: a semi-historical drama that’s also an aesthetic delight.

  5. The witty film Topsy-Turvy has a strong cast of many British character actors recognizable to PBS watchers. The beautiful photography is saturated with color (perhaps I should say ‘colour’). And you can sing along with it.

    I do prefer the striped moggy photograph. A more true-to-life shot would have kitty asleep on the skirts of the kimono.

  6. The rug is most definitely not Japanese, Japan doesn’t have a rug tradition. I think you are probably right, it’s all “eastern” from the Dutch perspective, but in reality there is no cultural coherence. All cross-cultural art is bound to reflect the artist’s cultural biases, even when attempting to be more documentarian than these are, but I can’t help but think how bizarre and possibly even disrespectful a Japanese viewer would find the use of kimono in such a portrait–I mean, it’s insulting to dirty your rice with soy sauce, much less wear a sloppy kimono…

    Having said that, I too LOVE textiles, esp. Japanese textiles, and the painterly rendering of the kimonos is beautiful.

  7. I just came upon this item on this excellent blog, and I would like to comment upon the ‘proper’ way of wearing a kimono, because although it is true that in Japan, they would not normally have been worn like Breitner shows in his paintings, there are of course many Japanese artworks in which women (and also men) are shown wearing kimono in an ‘informal manner’. This goes especially for erotic woodblock prints, also known as ‘shunga’. In these you will find people wearing the most complicated and formal kinds of kimono in various states of unravelling. Breitner was certainly familiar with these kind of prints, and of course refers to them in the way he represented Geesje in kimono, adding a strong sense of eroticism to his paintings. Another source for this ‘informal way of wearing kimono’, could have been erotic photographs, which were produced in large numbers in the Meiji period in Japan, mostly for foreign travellers. In addition, the Dutch had been wearing kimono as informal (but expensive) house-coats since the 17th century, as is shown in many painted portraits of members of the elite from that period.

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