The opaque story of Geesje Kwak & the milliner girl George Hendrik Breitner immortalised in a kimono.

Geesje Kwak was born in 1877 in Zaandam, North Holland province. When she was 16, Geesje moved with her sister Anna to Amsterdam to settle into the safe young ladies’ profession of milliner. There, among the ladies’ hats and bonnets, ribbons and bustling clients, she might have remained in obscurity, her name – and her features – unknown to art history. Except that one day her path crossed that of the artist George Hendrik Breitner.

Breitner, already something of a name in the art world of the time, had recently acquired a studio on Amsterdam’s Lauriergracht (Laurel Canal); one of the prettiest parts of the city. In 1892 the artist had visited an influential exhibition of Japanese art in The Hague (which style had earlier inspired Vincent van Gogh, among others), and he had enthusiastically acquired several kimonos and some decorative room screens as a result.

Now a year later, the artist’s chance meeting with the young milliner seems to have lit a spark of inspiration, and Geesje found herself being asked – on a paid professional basis – to pose as a model in the kimonos. Breitner, then 36, seems to have been meticulous about details. There is an existing notebook in which he recorded the various dates and hours when Geesje posed for him, and the amounts which she was paid for her time.

The notebook suggests a methodical, business-like approach to the model sessions, but the series of paintings which resulted makes it plain that Geesje had something – an x-factor – which tapped into a true well of inspiration for the artist. Breitner’s brushwork in the canvasses shows extraordinary verve and confidence, as if nowhere was it necessary to go over the same brushstroke twice. They are images which indicate that the artist knew exactly where he needed to go to achieve the result required, and what he needed to do to get there.

Posed either in a red or in a silvery-white kimono, Geesje is there in the canvasses as a tangible presence, even when only her face and her hands are visible. Breitner never allows that presence to be swamped by the surrounding patterns of cherry blossoms, birds, carpets and room screens which swirl busily around her; the balance between the naturalistic treatment of the model and the eddying patterns is always perfectly maintained.

Always a restless innovator, Breitner made extensive use of the relatively new medium of photography as a tool, and built up his own reference library of photographs of the subjects which became his principal themes. It is thanks to the artist’s embracing of this medium that we have so many views of the Amsterdam of the time, not just as it was, but as it was in the process of becoming, with building works in progress and tramlines (for horse-drawn trams) being laid down. And indeed; among his collection we also come across his photographs of Geesje, some of which (below) are clearly intended as references for his paintings.

From entries in his sketchbook and photos, we know that it was Geesje Kwak who posed for the painter between the ages of 16 and 18. Coming from a Zaandam family of bargees, Geesje Kwak moved to Amsterdam in 1880. Her young, innocent face and slender body contribute significantly to the appearance of delicate sensuality that characterises the entire series.

Geesje Kwak posed alternately in a red, a white and a blue Japanese kimono. From the time of his stay in Paris in 1884, where Japonism dominated the fashion scene, Breitner was fascinated by Japanese art. During that time, Japanese evenings were also held in the Netherlands and Japanese prints were exhibited. Breitner collected these woodcuts himself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

One photograph by Breitner in the Leiden Museum print collection (below) shows a thoughtful Geesje posing hand-on-chin. This gelatine-silver print offers us perhaps our clearest look at the girl who inspired the artist. I wonder sometimes what she must have thought about it all. Was she bemused? Was she flattered by the unexpected attention? In any event, she did not feature further in Breitner’s work. There are two reasons for this.

The first reason is that, incomprehensibly, the series of paintings featuring Geesje met with either an indifferent or a scoffing critical reception when they were exhibited. The critical reaction was cold enough, apparently, to discourage the artist further in this direction, and he went on to other themes and subjects. The second reason is Geesje herself. Two years later she emigrated with her older sister Niesje to Pretoria in South Africa.

Breitner (1857-1923) spent some time in Paris in 1884, where Japonism dominated the fashion scene and Breitner was fascinated by Japanese art. During that time, Japanese evenings were also held in the Netherlands and Japanese prints were exhibited, which were a big source of inspiration to Breitner.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The last known image of Geesje Kwak with her older sister in Pretoria, south Africa shortly before her death.

We have one last spectral glimpse of Geesje, together with her older sister, taken by a professional photographic studio in Pretoria. Just two years after the photograph was taken, Geesje died before reaching her 22nd birthday. The canvasses which are her legacy are now prized among the museum collections which house them, and the one which is now in a private collection reached an auction price in 2003 of almost €600,000.

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 preliminary photographs, sketches and drawings Breitner used as studies for the paintings.

his studio on the Lauriergracht in Amsterdam.

There are 13 Girl in Kimono works and one nude.

November 2018.

 

 

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Edme-François Jomard
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