From hat shop girl to Dutch art icon. But who was the Girl in the Kimono? The opaque story of an 1890s working class teenager immortalised by George Hendrik Breitner.
Breitner sought social realism in his work. He 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 this perspective into his studio portraits by making a point of employing working class models.
One of these models would become the “girl in the kimono”, immortalised in a series of 13 Japonisme inspired paintings.
The “girl in the kimono” 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.
Already something of a name in the art world of the time, Breitner had recently acquired a studio on Amsterdam’s Lauriergracht (Laurel Canal); one of the prettiest parts of the city. In Holland at this time, Japonisme had taken hold, Japanese evenings were held in homes and Japanese prints were exhibited. Breitner built up a fair collection of woodcuts himself. In 1892, after visiting an exhibition of Japanese art held in The Hague, he acquired several kimonos and some decorative room screens.
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. Out came those kimonos and the screens. Breitner, then 36, seems to have been meticulous about details. There’s 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 kimono sittings, but the series of paintings which resulted makes it plain that Geesje had something – an x-factor – which tapped a new well of inspiration in Breitner. His brushwork in the canvasses shows extraordinary verve and confidence, as if nowhere was it necessary to go over the same brushstroke twice. These are images that show an artist who knew exactly where he needed to go to achieve the result required, and what he needed to do to get there.
And Geesje? Posed either in a red or a silvery-white kimono, she’s there in the canvasses as a tangible presence, despite only her face and her hands being 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 so perfectly poised.
Geesje’s contribution as muse is undersung. Her young, innocent face and slender body contribute significantly to the appearance of delicate sensuality that characterises the entire series. She brought out something unique in the unpretentious social realist.
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. Incidentally, it’s thanks to his 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. Among his collection are just a few precious photographs of Geesje, some of which are clearly intended as reference for these paintings.
These old gelatine-silver prints offer us up our clearest idea of the personality of the girl who inspired the artist. In one picture (above) she looks like any youth today absent-mindedly looking at a phone screen except it’s a Japansese vase that holds her attention. She’s definitely relaxed, maybe tired, a little bored and bemused as to what she’s doing and why anyone would pay her good money for this. Is she a little flattered by the unexpected attention? After the 13 kimono canvases, she disappears from Breitner’s work.
There are two reasons for this.
Firstly, in 1895 Geesje emigrated with her older sister Niesje to Pretoria, South Africa.
Secondly, the kimono paintings met with either an indifferent or a scoffing critical reception when they were exhibited. Breitner swiftly ditched this new direction completely and went on (or back) to more familiar themes and subject matter.
For Breitner this was a blip, a flight of fancy amongst his more serious work. In time, the series he made with the hat shop girl would be the work he’s most famous for. In retrospect, and for most, his masterwork.
Geesje was born in 1877 in Zaandam, North Holland province. At 16, she 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 but for that one day her path crossed that of the artist George Hendrik Breitner.
Taken by a professional photographic studio in Pretoria, we have one last spectral glimpse of Geesje, together with her older sister, Niesje.
Just two years after the photograph was taken, Geesje died of tubercolosis in 1899 before reaching her 22nd birthday.
The canvasses – Geesje’s legacy as much as Brietner’s – are now prized by the museum which house them in their collections.