Fourteen kimono-wearing girls visit Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

From the 20th of February 2016, fourteen girls dressed in kimonos will be staying at the Philips Wing of the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam for a short visit. For the first time, the series of fourteen paintings by Dutch painter G.H. Breitner, will be shown together in one exhibition.

Breitner and his kimono paintings

Breitner was born in Rotterdam, but moved to The Hague. There he was influenced by the so-called so-called The Hague School and painters like Mesdag and Israel. He helped paint the Panorama Mesdag and worked with van Gogh when the latter settled in The Hague. Van Gogh left, Breitner was to move to Amsterdam.

Kimono Girl 2Around 1890 Breitner developed problems with his sight and was hospitalised. Fortunately, he was allowed to draw. After leaving hospital, between 1893 and 1896, he drew, photographed, painted girls wearing one of his three or even loaned kimonos. All his kimono-girls will be on show in an exhibition at the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam from 20th of February 2016.

The Rijksmuseum Twente was one of several who organised preceding exhibitions around the girl-kimono theme. Their 2001 exhibition included paintings, prints, photographs by Japanese artists, Breitner’s work, and work by contemporary artists. Similarities between composition and figures of for instance a print of two walking Geishas and a painting of two servant girls walking home through snowy Amsterdam, are striking.

Breitner was not the only one “wild about Japanese art”. Monet acquired his first few Japanese prints while on a short stay in Holland. They were apparently used as wrapping paper at his local Dutch ‘supermarket”. The influence of Japanese art can not only be traced in Monet’s work, but his famous garden as well.

Kimono Girl 1Van Gogh’s paintings as well as works of other artist also bear traces of Japanese influences. Take van Gogh’s “Almond Blossoms”. During the late 19th century, .imported and reproduced Japanese objects, screens, art, clothes, became the rage and the term Japonism was coined. The Japonism bug bit Breitner during a visit to Paris and resulted in the fourteen Amsterdam “Girl-Kimono” paintings.

The Rijksmuseum exhibition will try to recreate Breitner’s studio at the Lauriergracht Amsterdam. The exhibition will not only show all Breitner’s “Girl in Kimono” paintings, including a recent discovery. It will also show sketches, photographs, Japanese prints, and results of new research.

The girls in kimonos

So who is the girl wearing those kimonos? Actually, Breinter used more than one model. The one most frequently photographed, drawn and painted, is Geesje Kwak. (Geesje probably being a short form of Gesina.) But Breitner also drew and painted Geesje’s elder sister Anna.

Kimono Girl 3While she was still a child, Geesje’s family moved to the Amsterdam neighbourhood called Jordaan. They came from the north of the province of Noord-Holland. Like all her family, Geesje worked to support the family and herself. She seems to have done needle work, created hats, served as a shop assistant and servant girl.

Geesje started modelling for Breinter when she was about sixteen. Experts mention her innocent and young face, slender and adolescent body, as well as the delicate sensuality of the “kimono” paintings.

If you are in the known, you will notice Geesje nor Breitner knew how a kimono should be worn. Of course, Geesje was no trained Geisha and Breitner did not seem to own a traditional kimono belt. In a few paintings, a yellow scarf is used to tie the kimono in place.

Geesje quit modelling for Breitner after about three years. She and her younger sister left the Netherlands, to try their luck as servant girls in South Africa in 1895. Less than four years later, aged twenty-two, Geesje died in South Africa from tuberculosis.

Rijksmuseum Amsterdam: “Breitner: Girl in Kimono”; accompanying publication by S. Veldink & N. Woltman, Rijksmuseum 2016
Museum Twenthe 2001 exhibition Dutch publication: “Meisjes in Kimono”, R Bergsma & Hajime Shimoyama, Hotei Publishing, Leiden 2001

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