PhotoLexicon, Volume 4, nr. 6 (March 1987) (en)

George Breitner

Hedi Hegeman


Although George Hendrik Breitner, an Impressionist artist who lived and worked in Amsterdam, was first and foremost a painter, he also left behind a very substantial photographic oeuvre. Breitner turned to photography as an aid to observe, as well as a mnemonic device for his painting. It was never his intention to go public with his photography, and yet he instilled his work with a tremendous amount of creativity and personal vision. Breitner photographed in a dynamic style that had never before been encountered in Dutch photography. The most frequent themes found in Breitner’s work are his impressions of streetl life in Amsterdam and the models in his studio.




George Hendrik Breitner is born on 12 September 1857 in Rotterdam, as the son of Johann Wilhelm Breitner and Marianne Henrïette Gortmans.


After having completed his schooling, Breitner works in the office of his father, who runs a grain dealership in Rotterdam. He also receives lessons in drawing from the painter Christoffel Neurdenburg.


Breitner chooses for a career in painting over working in the business world. He takes classes at the KABK (Koninklijke Academie van Beeldende Kunsten, ‘Royal Academy of Art’) in The Hague and at the TH Delft (Technische Hoogeschool, ‘University of Technology’).


After having received his diploma as a drawing instructor, he attends the KABK. He receives financial backing from A.P. van Stolk, a Rotterdam grain dealer, with whom he corresponds extensively up until the year 1887.

In 1878 and 1879, he also pays for his living expenses by teaching evening classes at the artist’s association Ars Aemula Naturae (‘Art Competes with Nature’) in Leiden.


Breitner paints at the studio of Willem Maris, a painter of the Hague School. Breitner’s work on the Mesdag Panorama and his membership in the painters’ association Pulchri Studio also demonstrate his involvement in the Hague School during this year.


Breitner goes to Boxtel to study military manoeuvres. Even as a child, Breitner enjoyed drawing land and sea battles.


Breitner takes courses at the ABK (Academie van Beeldende Kunsten, ‘Academy of VisualArts’) in Rotterdam. In 1883, he visits the Dutch province of Drenthe. In 1884, he visits Paris. In 1885, he visits Drenthe once again.


Breitner writes a letter to his friend Herman van der Weele, requesting a drawing with instructions on how to make a camera.


Breitner’s move to Amsterdam is important for his development as a painter. Here he will remain until his death in 1923, residing at nineteen different addresses. Breitner receives lessons at the RABK (Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten, ‘National Academy of Fine Arts’) in Amsterdam, under the direction of A. Allebé. During his time in Amsterdam, Breitner photographs on a frequent basis. The earliest photos that have been preserved date from approximately 1886.


During the 1890s, the cityscape becomes Breitner’s main theme, both in painting and in photography. Most of his photos date from this period.


In Elspeet, Breitner attends the exercises of the ‘Gele Rijders’ (‘Yellow Riders’), a well-known group in the Dutch cavalry. Photos of such exercises are found in the archive that Breitner left behind, though it remains uncertain whether Breitner or Willem Witsen shot these photos.


Breitner visits London with Willem Witsen and Marius Bauer. Here he meets the young painter Cees Maks.


Breitner obtains a studio on the Prinseneiland (‘Prinsen Island’) in Amsterdam, built according to his own plans by C.J. Maks Jzn. in exchange for overseeing the work of Maks’ son, Cees. The studios of Breitner and Maks Jr. are directly adjacent to each other. The two men occasionally venture out together, for instance, to sketch construction sites in Amsterdam.


Breitner travels to Berlin with Bart van Hove. According to Breitner’s biographer, Ivor Pols, he shot two hundred photos during this visit. These have not been preserved.


Breitner marries Marie Jordan. A large exhibition of Breitner’s work is held in the artist’s honour at the artist’s society Arti et Amicitiae (‘Arts and Friends’) in Amsterdam. From this time forward, the high pace of his painting production begins to taper off. Photography, however, is still very important to Breitner. He relies on this medium for his painting more than ever before.


During these years, Breitner lives in Aerdenhout. He keeps his Amsterdam studio on Prinseneiland.


Breitner takes various trips, including a visit to Belgium in 1906.


Breitner travels to Pittsburg, Pensylvania, in the United States to serve as a jury member for the International Exhibition held at the Carnegie Institutes.


Breitner gives up his studio on Prinseneiland. He finds it too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter.


Breitner’s final years of low productivity and tranquillity come to an end on 5 June. He dies peacefully at his studio. Cees Maks later states that in Breitner’s studio a clothesbasket full of negatives had been discovered.


One year after his death, Breitner’s work is sold at a special auction held on 13 May at the Frederik Muller auction house in Amsterdam. His student, Cees Maks, buys his plate camera along with approximately 300 photographs.


In his own day, George Breitner was recognised as one of the most important painters of Dutch Impressionism. In spite of this, relatively little has been written about his painting. The phenomenon of his photographic oeuvre, however, has received adequate attention and, in 1966, led to in-depth research conducted by Paul Hefting and C.C.G. Quarles van Ufford. This study assured Breitner of a permanent place in the international academic literature on the history of photography, presenting him as one of those rare creative spirits who, free of all tradition, introduced an entirely new approach to photography. As Breitner never went public with his photographic work, his contemporaries were scarcely aware of this activity.

Breitner’s interest in photography certainly dates back to his days in The Hague, i.e. prior to 1886, at which time he moved to Amsterdam. No photos, however, have survived from this period.

In 1883, Breitner wrote the following to Herman van der Weele: ‘Be so good as to send post order with drawing and instructions regarding how I can make a camera, as I saw when I was with you.’ Van der Weele was financially well-off, hospitable, and lived in a relatively large home: he had more than enough time to act as a social hub for the circle of painters in The Hague. He collected paintings of the Hague School and regularly purchased works by Breitner in order to temporarily free him of his ever-recurring money concerns. Van der Weele was himself an amateur photographer, and it was he who drew Breitner’s attention to photography.

For Breitner, besides being a tool to help him with his painting—offering a quick way to record moods and memories—his photographic hobby likewise served to exacerbate his money worries. While the exact number of cameras in his possession is unknown, he is estimated to have shot approximately 2,500 photos in the period circa 1886 to 1910. Without doubt, Breitner possessed a hand camera for 12×9 cm glass negatives, a camera for Film Pack (with celluloid negatives), and a roll film camera. Dabs of paint on Breitner’s plate camera indicate that he never kept photography and painting strictly apart. He made contact prints from his negatives on daylight paper and pasted these in an album or on cardboard mounts. Breitner made enlargements of some of his photos. On occasion, he hired a photographer on the Kalverstraat to do this work, most likely C.A.P. Ivens, as well as Wegner & Mottu, as the latter’s name appears in a letter to Van der Weele. In 1917, Breitner complained about ‘those photographers in The Hague’, whom he had probably approached to make reproductions, but which in his view would lead to absolutely nothing. His contact with the photography world did not always go well, probably due to a difference in opinion regarding what photography was ‘intended’ to be. One exception was his contact with Bram Loman, an amateur photographer and the designer of the Loman Reflex camera. Around 1890, Breitner is known to have consulted him for technical advice on more than one occasion.

Breitner’s knowledge of photographic and printing technique was perhaps rather limited. His ideas regarding the optical possibilities of the photo camera, however, were more progressive than the average view held by professional and artistic photographers of his day. He saw photography as providing a better way to study the play of light, tone, and atmosphere. Consequently, he approached the medium differently than photographers. He experimented with human movements and posture, the weather conditions, backlighting, and perspective. The diagonal compositions, the contrasts in light and dark, and the abrupt crops all suggest movement and dynamism in accordance with his own nervous and impulsive character. He greatly emphasised the waving white skirts of female housemaids walking in the street and juxtaposed the soot-covered chimneys with layers of snow. Passers-by in the streets and on the bridges of Amsterdam are photographed from a low vantage point, while completely in motion. By this time, people were accustomed to seeing photographers in the street, but a photographer taking photos while on his knees or laying flat on the street is certain to have drawn some attention.

The use of photography as a visual aid was known in painters’ circles and tacitly acknowledged in most cases. After Breitner’s death, however, art critics and the public alike were shocked upon learning just how important the link was between his photos and his painting. In 1923, the influential art critic Albert Plasschaert described the use of photography as ‘dangerous’, following the discovery of Breitner’s negatives in his studio. Plasschaert was unaware of the extent to which working from photos had already become common practice in painters’ studios, and that this was by no means limited to the Netherlands, nor more frequent than elsewhere. Just as Breitner, painters in France were every bit as susceptible to the influence of photography. It helped Manet to become aware of the two-dimensionality of the painting canvas, inspired Degas into making studies in movement, and encouraged Monet to create faded forms.

Thomas Eakins, an American painter, began making his own photo studies to assist with his painting starting in 1880. He also took autonomous photos to document his family life. In terms of the uncompromising honesty with which family members, friends, and models were depicted, as well as spontaneity and the light-and-dark contrasts used as a deliberate means of style, Eakins’ photography is highly similar to Breitner’s own. In the Netherlands, Willem Witsen was as much of an enthusiastic amateur photographer as Breitner. Witsen’s vision of photography is also spontaneous and unconventional, when compared to the professional photography of his day. He seldom used his photos as preliminary studies for his paintings. The possibility that Breitner and Witsen exchanged photos and negatives, and that Breitner worked from photos shot by Witsen, cannot be ruled out. The negative archives of both artists include, for example, highly similar studies made of military exercises. In the case of such images, an attribution to one or the other artist cannot be ascertained with certainty.

For Breitner, photography was a quick and efficient substitute for the camera obscura and other optical instruments that had been used in the past to assist painters in determining the composition and placement of objects in relation to each other. He set up his compositions with the help of ‘calques’ (transparencies), whereby a photo was traced onto the canvas with the aid of a gridded overlay. After having done so, however, Breitner always painted a free interpretation of the photo study within these contours. He enlivened forms by using sombre earth tints and adding intense colour accents, as well as leaving out distracting details in the photo, and on occasion, choosing an entirely different perspective. The abrupt crops in his paintings betray a photographic vision. The sketch-like dabbing of his brush in his paintings suggests the blur that comes with movement and rain, just as the camera blur works in his photos. In this way, he was able to achieve a fragmentary and random image of reality and a registration of a mood, rather than the details.

Virtually all of the subjects that Breitner painted are also found in his photography. That said, a direct chronological pairing between the themes he photographed and his paintings is impracticable: Breitner sometimes turned to a subject in his photography, which he had already long abandoned in his painting. The most important themes in his photography can be grouped according to the keywords: urban life in Amsterdam, horses, nudes and model studies.

In the 1880s and ’90s, Amsterdam offered a dynamic visual array of breakthroughs, newly constructed buildings, busy trams, and the general hustle and bustle of the city. Breitner photographed the neighbourhoods where he lived and returned to a certain spot to capture it during various conditions and seasons—and all of that in a rapid working tempo, sometimes with clumsy results. The compositions of his photos showing building activity at construction sites, for example, are chaotic. Images are often shadowy and in motion, like overlapping images in a sequence, as seen through a dysfunctional retina. This is particularly the case with photos of people rushing past, of women and girls coming towards him on a bridge, or of people celebrating in the street, such as during the festivities on Hartjesdag (‘Day of Hearts’). Besides areas such as the Prinsengracht canal, the Rokin, the Dam Square, and other renowned places, Breitner also photographed the outskirts of the city with its semi-rural, semi-industrial areas: the towpaths, patches of raised land, sand carts, and building sites.

Breitner’s experience of Amsterdam was entirely different from Jacob Olie’s. Likewise produced during the 1890s, Olie’s Amsterdam is a sedate nineteenth-century city. By contrast, Breitner portrays a lively, bustling city on its way to becoming a metropole.

Horses have always played a major role in Breitner’s work. From a young age, he was greatly interested in the cavalry’s military manoeuvres. In the first half of the 1890s, Breitner made these manoeuvres the subject of his photos, at a time when the same theme in his painting had already been replaced by urban living. In the city, he photographed the workhorses for the trams, the horse-pulled canal boats and carts, as well as the so-called ‘aapjes’ (‘monkeys’, i.e. the taxis in the urban traffic of those days). Workhorses, construction workers, servant girls, all kinds of activity in the street: the dynamic of the expanding city is the real theme addressed in Breitner’s photos.

Breitner’s choice of the female nude as photographic subject matter was a reflection of his background at the art academy, where the nude was a traditional theme. In Dutch photography, it was a subject no one had ever before dared to broach.

People were familiar with nude photography on daguerreotypes from abroad, as well as stereoscopic photo cards, usually in a series of erotic photographs. In France, the academic nude in photography dates back to the early 1850s. The painter Eugène Delacroix liked to work from photos of nude models. He would send his models to others, including the photographer Eugène Durieu. Delacroix was often on hand during these photo shoots, in order to provide directorial tips. The photographer Nadar also made academic nude studies at this time.

Breitner photographed his model—including his wife—lying on a divan or standing in a tub. Breitner may have intended these nude photos as anatomical and perspective studies, much in the same manner as the French painter Edgar Degas used such photographic studies when painting dancers in complex positions, with the distortions caused by perspective. Breitner also photographed clothed models, such as Geesje Kwak, a female hat-seller who posed for him on a regular basis. For a series of photos taken in 1893, Kwak donned a Japanese kimono. A luxurious divan, screen, and textiles evoked an exotic atmosphere. The paintings ‘Het oorringetje’ (‘The Little Earring’) and ‘Meisje in kimono’ (‘Girl in a Kimono’) were produced from these photos. The images that Breitner shot of Geesje Kwak are finished to such a degree—in terms of content, composition, and technique—that they surpass the level of a study and become autonomous images of a supremely artistic photographer.

Over the years, the significance of Breitner’s photographic oeuvre has taken on varying dimensions. For Breitner himself, it was a way of seeing—the perfect medium to study movement, postures, light contrasts, and angles of view. From the perspective of artisticity, his paintings and drawings were far more important to him. Nevertheless, Breitner derived a great deal of pleasure from taking photos.

From the time Breitner’s photographic archive has been made accessible to the public, it has served as a unique source of art historical information regarding his working method as a painter. For the history of Dutch photography, Breitner’s oeuvre is a breakthrough based on his new perspective with respect to the possibilities of the medium. Similarly, the introduction of the academy nude as a new theme in Dutch photography can likewise be specifically attributed to him.


Secondary bibliography

Dr. A. van Schendel, Breitner, Amsterdam (H.J.W. Becht) z.j. (paletserie).

Catalogus tent. George Hendrik Breitner, schilder en fotograaf 1857-1923, Den Haag (RKD en Gemeentemuseum) 1962.

J.M.B., Foto’s van Breitner gevonden, in Het Vaderland 25 januari 1962.

Auteur onbekend, Breitners instantaneetjes, in Algemeen Handelsblad 10 februari 1962.

Ton Hydra, Bezetenheid met kiekkast deed geen afbreuk aan Breitners grote kunst, in Zondagsblad 3 maart 1962.

D.H., George Breitner was een schilder en geen fotograaf, in Foto 17 (1962) 3, p. 124-125.

Ivor Vincent Pols, George Hendrik Breitner, proefschrift Gem. Universiteit Amsterdam 1966.

P.H. Hefting en C.C.G. Quarles van Ufford, Breitner als fotograaf, Rotterdam (Lemniscaat) 1966.

Ed Wingen, Breitner was ook een boeiend fotograaf, in De Telegraaf 4 november 1966.

Dick Boer, Breitner als fotograaf, in Focus 52 (1967) 12, p. 24, 25.

P.H. Hefting, Notities over G.H. Breitner, in Bulletin Rijksmuseum 16 (1968) 4, p. 164-173.

W.H. Vroom, recensie van Breitner als fotograaf, in Oud-Holland 85 (1970), p. 135.

Auteur onbekend, Proefschrift over G.H. Breitner, in Het Vaderland 13 maart 1970.

Catalogus tent. Malerei nach Fotografie, Von der Camera Obscura bis zur Pop Art, München (Münchner Stadtmuseum) 1970, p. 65-67 en afb. p. 45.

Catalogus tent. met inleiding P.H. Hefting, G.H. Breitner – schilder/fotograaf, Eindhoven (Galerie de Zonnewijzer) 1971.

Van Deren Coke, The painter and the photograph, from Delacroix to Warhol, Albuquerque (Univ. of New Mexico Press) 1972, p. 88, 89 (met foto’s).

Catalogus tent. G.H. Breitner, Zeist (Zeister Slot) 5 juni – 26 augustus 1973.

Auteur onbekend, George Hendrik Breitner, vijftig jaar na zijn dood toe aan herwaardering, in Het Binnenhof 23 juni 1973

Betty van Garrel, in Haagse Post 23 juli 1973.

Ton Frenken, George Breitner vijftig jaar dood, laatste grote naturalist en voorloper van fotografisch realisme, in Eindhovens Dagblad 1 augustus 1973.

A.B. Osterholt, Breitner en zijn foto’s, Amsterdam (De Arbeiderspers) 1974.

B.Kr., Breitners ‘wasmand vol negatieven’, in De Tijd 28 februari 1975.

E.R., Breitner als fotograaf, in De Waarheid 6 maart 1975.

Max van Rooy, Breitner fotografeerde zoals hij schilderde, in NRC Handelsblad 7 maart 1975.

Dolf Welling, Breitner in foto’s en openhartige brieven, in Haagse Courant 13 maart 1975.

Koos Tuitjer, Breitners dure hobby, in De Gelderlander 19 maart 1975.

P.H.D., Breitner fotograaf, in Het Vaderland 19 april 1975.

Auteur onbekend, Foto’s van Breitner, in De Groene Amsterdammer 7 mei 1975.

M.S., Breitner kon ook fotograferen, in Algemeen Dagblad 10 mei 1975.

G. Kruis, Foto’s van Breitner veroorzaakten deining, in Trouw 4 juli 1975.

P.H. Hefting, Brieven van G.H. Breitner aan H.J. van der Weele, in Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek 1976, 27 (1977), p. 127-173.

Catalogus tent. George Hendrik Breitner, Gemälde, Zeichnungen, Fotografien, Bonn (Rheinisches Landesmuseum) 1977.

Auteur onbekend, Foto’s van Breitner op expositie in Waag, in Het Deventer Dagblad, 24 januari 1977.

Adriaan Venema, De Amsterdamse Joffers, Baarn 1977, p. 84, 91.

Ingeborg Th. Leijerzapf (red.), Fotografie in Nederland 1839-1920, Den Haag (Staatsuitgeverij) 1978.

Herman Hoeneveld, De foto’s van Breitner, in Kunstbeeld 4 (1980) 10, p. 17.

Ingeborg Th. Leijerzapf en Caroline A. Rehorst-de Westenholz, Fotografie, in catalogus tent. De tijd wisselt van spoor, Laren (Singer Museum) 1981, p. 164, 165, en cat.nrs. 771-790.

Adriaan Venema, G.H. Breitner 1857-1923, Bussum (Wereldvenster) 1981.

Willem van Well Groeneveld, Breitner gezocht, in Elegance 39 (1982) 11, p. 100-102.

Peter Charpentier, Gracias musae oculo vitrino, dank aan de muze met het glazen oog, in Professionele fotografie 1 (oktober/november 1983) 2, p. 10-13.

Auteur onbekend, Fotocollectie Breitner, in Leidsch Dagblad 7 mei 1984.

Hedi Hegeman, Breitnerfoto’s in Leiden, in De Boekenwereld 1 (1984-5) 4, p. 15-19.

Hedi Hegeman, 300 originele fotoafdrukken, George Hendrik Breitner, 1857-1923, in Jaarverslag Vereniging Rembrandt 1984, p. 38-43.

Charles Vergeer, Willem Witsen en zijn vriendenkring, de Amsterdamse bohème van de jaren negentig, Amsterdam/Brussel (Thomas Rap) 1985, p. 17, 19, 26, 27, 39, 57, 71, 79, 84-92, 105, 112, 114, 166 (met foto’s).

J.F. Heijbroek, Werken naar foto’s. Een terreinverkenning Nederlandse kunstenaars en de fotografie in het Rijksmuseum, in Bulletin van het Rijksmuseum 34 (1986) 4, p. 220-236.


Pulchri Studio, Den Haag, vanaf 1879 (buitengewoon lid; vanaf 1880 werkend lid).


1962 (e) Den Haag, Gemeentemuseum, George Hendrik Breitner, schilder en fotograaf 1857-1923.

1962 (e) Amsterdam, Museum Fodor.

1969 (e) Den Bosch.

1970 (g) München, Münchner Stadtmuseum, Malerei nach Fotografie, Von der Camera Obscura bis zur Pop Art.

1971 (e) Eindhoven, Galerie de Zonnewijzer, G.H.Breitner, schilder-fotograaf

1971 (g) Roermond, 100 jaar fotografie.

1973 (e) Zeist, Zeister Slot, G.H. Breitner.

1973 (e) Amsterdam, Historisch Museum, George Hendrik Breitner 1857-1923 uit gemeentelijke collecties.

1977 (e) Deventer, de Waag.

1977/78 (e) Bonn, Rheinisches Landesmuseum, George Hendrik Breitner, Gemalde, Zeichnungen, Fotografien.

1977 (e) Zürich, Kunsthaus, Malerei und Photographie im Dialog von 1840 bis heute.

1980 (e) Amsterdam, Galerie Art Book, G.H. Breitner foto’s.


Amsterdam, Rijksprentenkabinet, drs. J.F. Heijbroek, mondelinge informatie.

Leiden, Prentenkabinet, bibliotheek en documentatiebestand.

Leiden, Mevr. E.A. Loman-Bittner, mondelinge informatie.


Amsterdam, Rijksprentenkabinet, album met reisfoto’s, ca. 60 vergrotingen, waarvan twee met kwadraturen. Vermoedelijk afkomstig van Marie Breitner-Jordan.

Den Haag, Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie, o.a. een collectie van ca. 2000 fotonegatieven, door Marie Jordan eerst aan de Amsterdamse kunsthandelaar J.H. Siedenburg overgedragen en sinds 1961 in de collectie van het RKD.

Leiden, Prentenkabinet, ca. 300 originele foto’s, voorheen collectie A.B. Osterholt, via Cees Maks die in 1924 op de veiling dit fotografisch oeuvre aankocht. In de collectie van het Prentenkabinet sinds 1984.