Painter & early street photographer. The astonishing early street photography that helped George Hendrik Breitner add social realism to his famous paintings of Amsterdam.

Snow scene over the Damrak in Amsterdam, George Hendrik Breitner, c. 1890 – c. 1910.

For the Dutch painter George Hendrik Breitner (1857-1923), his interest in photography began as a practical way to capture street life in all its spontaneous authenticity a for use as reference in painting the city and other subject matter. Preserving the fleeting atmospherics of the weather was something he was after too. Inclement, atmospheric weather especially was something he was aiming to capture. Brietner is noted especially for his realistic, renderings of the city streets and harbours. Photography enhanced and accentuated that reality. If you ask ten photographers to shoot the same street, the results will be ten sets of images of ten different streets. There are so many factors involved that everyone can’t help but have a personal style and of course Brietner was no different. Once you know this, and have seen the particular way he chooses his camera angles, his compositions, the instinctive and the particular way he chooses to crop moving passers by, to shoot from low, etc., etc. – it is truly difficult not to recognise, see (and feel) his quite distinctive photographic sensibilities in his paintings.

Self portrait with pince-nez,
George Hendrik Breitner, 1881

Breitner’s view of himself as ‘le peintre du peuple’ (the people’s painter) meant that his street photography was all about everyday Amsterdam & Amsterdammers. Impressionism (& social realism) owes just a little of its revolutionary immediacy to the magic of the camera.

A huge part of Breitner’s legacy – aside from that girl in a kimono – is that he introduced radical new levels of social realism into contemporary imagery of the Netherlands. Of course, Breitner’s camera wasn’t his only tool he clearly had an armoury. One quick flick through his sketchbooks reveals an eye and a hand that lacked nothing artistically. Photography simply helped.

The Singel Bridge at the Paleisstraat in Amsterdam, George Hendrik Breitner, 1898. Oil on canvas.

Several photographic reference studies are known for Breitner’s Singelbrug near the Paleisstraat in Amsterdam, ca. 1897 (above). It’s an image that could easily (if you squint at it quickly through your eyelashes) have been snapped on an iphone in Amsterdam yesterday.

Enough about paintings. Brietner had an incredible eye and he walked around Amsterdam in the late 1800s with a camera and took a some amazing pictures for us to enjoy right now.

Corner of the Herengracht and the Gasthuismolensteeg, George Hendrik Breitner, 1890 – 1900.
Government warehouses on Brouwersgracht in Amsterdam, George Hendrik Breitner, c. 1890 – c. 1910.
Visitors at a Horse Market, George Hendrik Breitner, c. 1890 – c. 1910.
View through the Omvalspoort in Haarlem, George Hendrik Breitner, c. 1890 – c. 1910.
Portrait of a Woman Walking on the Prinsengracht in Amsterdam, George Hendrik Breitner, c. 1890 – c. 1910.
Group portrait of workers at Van Diemenstraat in Amsterdam, George Hendrik Breitner, c. 1890 – c. 1910.
View of the Singel in Amsterdam on a Rainy Day, George Hendrik Breitner (attributed to workshop of), c. 1890 – c. 1910.
Construction workers in and on a construction site on the Nieuwendijk in Amsterdam,
George Hendrik Breitner, c. 1890 – c. 1910.
View of the Looiersgracht in Amsterdam, George Hendrik Breitner, c. 1890 – c. 1910.
Business in Houtkopersdwarsstraat and Jodenbreestraat in Amsterdam, George Hendrik Breitner, c. 1890 – c. 1910.
Street view at the Lindengracht crossing Lijnbaansgracht in Amsterdam, George Hendrik Breitner, c. 1890 – c. 1910.
Street View in Rotterdam, George Hendrik Breitner, c. 1890 – c. 1910.
View of the Leidseplein in Amsterdam with carriage traffic on a winter day, George Hendrik Breitner, 1890 – 1910.
Two Women in the Snow, George Hendrik Breitner, c. 1890 – c. 1910.
Sailing ships in the Houthaven in Amsterdam, George Hendrik Breitner, c. 1890 – c. 1910.
View of the Leidseplein in Amsterdam with carriage traffic on a winter day, George Hendrik Breitner, 1890 – 1910.

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