A painter out taking photographs
The earliest indication of Breitner’s use of photography is found in a letter, probably written in 1889, to Herman van der Weele, a fellow painter and photographer: ‘Please be so kind as to tell me by return of post, with a diagram as well as explanation, how I can make a camera – like the one I saw at your house’.1 At the time you could buy various affordable, easy-to-use models. If the assumption that the letter dates from 1889 is correct, it seems remarkable that Breitner could have contemplated building a camera himself, for this would only have been a very basic construction, offering very limited possibilities and primitive results.2 The photograph that is supposed to be his earliest firmly datable example, a portrait of the writer Lodewijk van Deyssel of 1889, was in any event not made with a home-made camera. Given the optical and technical quality of the portrait it must have been taken with a shop-bought item.3
If we assume that Breitner took up photography in 1889, then his activity in this field lasted for 25 years: the latest photographs that can be dated with certainty are two Amsterdam townscapes made in 1915.4 This means that his activity as photographer largely coincides with his career as a painter. If we take as the official starting point of his career 1880 – the year in which he completed his training at the academy in The Hague, joined the Pulchri Studio and collaborated on the Panorama Mesdag – then it was only the decade 1880-1889 in which he was not also active as photographer. He more or less stopped painting after 1914 and probably gave up photography as well soon after.
Between these limits – the years 1889 and 1915 – it is often difficult to date photographs more precisely. Topographical details, such as the demolition or erection of a particular house or building, sometimes provide valuable clues. One good example is the picture of two women, blurred as they move across Dam Square (image 2), which is perhaps one of Breitner’s most beautiful photographs. A variant of this exposure (image 3) was made only a few seconds later, once the two women had reached the northern edge of the square. An advertisement for a clothing shop is visible in the background. From comparisons with other photographs of the same location – it was a popular spot – we know that the advertisement had not yet been put up in 1901 and was replaced in 1908.
In earlier literature on Breitner it has sometimes been assumed that most of his photographs were taken in the 1890s.5 Further research is needed to provide more accurate dates for those photographs identified as from the 90s: the group of roughly 300 photos that were acquired by A.B. Osterholt from Kees Maks’s widow and are now in Leiden University Library.6 The idea that Breitner was primarily active as photographer in that decade is not supported by much ‘hard’ evidence. Extensive research has revealed that many of the 263 negatives that were discovered in 1995 in the Amsterdam City Archives can be dated quite accurately.7 The results show that only 40 per cent of items in this group stem from the 1890s, while the rest were made after 1900, mainly in 1906-1907. It is possible that the period after 1900 is overrepresented in this group, so we should not jump to the conclusion that this division applies throughout Breitner’s photographic work. Interestingly, a study of his pictures of Rotterdam – the only other detailed research published on his photographs – shows that these, too, were mostly taken in 1905-1906 – in other words, at about the same time as many of the photographs in the City Archives.8
Research to establish dates and locations is time consuming, but it tells us that Breitner was still making extensive use of his camera after 1900. Moreover, the quality of these post-1900 photographs demonstrates that as a photographer Breitner was by no means in decline after the turn of the century, even though his output as a painter is generally felt to have tailed off.
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 ), p. 139: ‘Wees zoo goed en meld me per omgaande, met teekening en uitleg, hoe ik een camera kan maken. – zooals ik toen bij jou gezien heb’.
Van der Weele dated the letter 14 July 1889. The final digit looks like a 3 and this is also what Osterholt presumed in his book Breitner en zijn foto’s (1974), but Hefting maintains that the letter cannot possibly date from 1883 and that the year should be read as 1889. See also Hedi Hegeman, ‘George Breitner’, in Ingeborg Th. Leijerzapf (ed.), Geschiedenis van de Nederlandse fotografie in monografieën en thema-artikelen, vol. 7 (1987), pp. 1, 3; Paul Hefting, De foto’s van Breitner, The Hague 1989, p. 25; 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. 190, 198 (note 17); Tineke de Ruiter, ‘Tussen dynamiek en verstilling. Breitners glazen foto’s van Amsterdam’, in Anneke van Veen (ed.), G.H. Breitner. Fotograaf en schilder van het Amsterdamse stadsgezicht, Bussum/Amsterdam 1997, p. 12.
For the date of this portrait, see: 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. 190, 198 (note 20).
Anneke van Veen (ed.), G.H. Breitner. Fotograaf en schilder van het Amsterdamse stadsgezicht, Bussum/Amsterdam 1997, p. 179, cat. nos. 263-264.
Hedi Hegeman, ‘300 originele fotoafdrukken, George Hendrik Breitner, 1857-1923’, in Vereniging Rembrandt. Nationaal Fonds Kunstbehoud. Verslag over 1984, pp. 40, 43; Hedi Hegeman, ‘George Breitner’, in Ingeborg Th. Leijerzapf (ed.), Geschiedenis van de Nederlandse fotografie in monografieën en thema-artikelen, vol. 7 (1987), p. 2.
For these photographs see: A.B. Osterholt, Breitner en zijn foto’s, Amsterdam 1974, and Hedi Hegeman, ‘300 originele fotoafdrukken, George Hendrik Breitner, 1857-1923’, in Vereniging Rembrandt. Nationaal Fonds Kunstbehoud. Verslag over 1984, pp. 38-43.
All are catalogued in Anneke van Veen (ed.), G.H. Breitner. Fotograaf en schilder van het Amsterdamse stadsgezicht, Bussum/Amsterdam 1997.
Aad Gordijn, Paul van de Laar and Hans Rooseboom, Breitner in Rotterdam. Fotograaf van een verdwenen stad, Bussum 2001.