George Hendrik Breitner (1857-1923), one of the most influential painters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is renowned for his bold painting style and his fascination with cityscapes and places undergoing rapid urban development. His life and work are inseparably linked to the dynamism of urban life and the constant changes that occurred during the rapid industrialization period in the Netherlands.
Born in Rotterdam, Breitner began his artistic education at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in The Hague. He later moved to Amsterdam, where he was captivated by the fast and dynamic city life. He keenly observed everyday scenes, which became the basis of his art. One of Breitner’s famous quotes is: “I don’t want to paint landscapes, I want to paint people in the city, in their work, their entertaining, their hustle or in their rest.”
Breitner’s painting style was expressive and energetic. He used thick, broad brushstrokes and vibrant colours to capture the liveliness of the city. His work was characterized by the representation of the raw and unpolished character of the city. He was a master at capturing atmosphere and emotion. In his creative process, Breitner photographed, sketched and painted busy streets, markets and squares, emphasizing the movements of the life in the city. His cityscapes were often raw and honest, unafraid to depict poverty and harsh realities.
A notable aspect of Breitner’s work was his fascination with construction sites. During the rapid urban growth of that period, construction projects were a common sight in the city. Breitner saw beauty in these seemingly rough and chaotic environments. This is evident in paintings like Demolition in St. Agnietenstraat for the expansion of the city hall, an exceptional art work in our auction. Here Breitner captured the expansion of the old city hall. The 17th century building, once referred to as the Prinsenhof, had gotten too small and was being extended along the Agnietenstraat and the Oudezijds Achterburgwal. The site now houses a large international hotel. During the works in 1903, Breitner took at least nineteen photos and made six sketches. The location can be clearly identified based in this material. The sketch below (image 1) shows the backside of the Oudezijds Voorburgwal 205-209 during the demolition on Agnietenstraat. The same buildings depicted in our painting by Breitner can be seen on the left side of the sketch. This location is also visible in the photo from the RKD (Dutch Institute for Art History) titled “View of Oudezijds Achterburgwal with the entrance of St. Agnietenstraat 1903.”
Breitner painted construction sites with unparalleled passion, capturing the strength and energy of the building process. His bold brushstrokes and use of light and shadow demonstrated his mastery and artistic vision. Many view these paintings of construction sites as a metaphor for the ongoing changes in the urban landscape and humanity’s pursuit of progress.
As early as the 19th century, Breitner’s works were acquired by the Rijksmuseum, a distinction not even bestowed upon artists like the Maris brothers and Anton Mauve at the time. Breitner was known in the art world as an impulsive and instinct-driven emotional individual. He fulfilled the artist stereotype by behaving capriciously and unconventionally at times.
In 1928, the ‘Gemeente Museum’ for Modern Art in The Hague held a major retrospective exhibition of Breitner’s work. The introduction of the accompanying catalogue reads as follows: “Sprung from the fervent urge to testify of oneself, dominated by a strong desire for technical perfection, directed towards the lofty ideal of beauty out of controlled passion, Breitner’s beautiful work stands vividly before us, accepting the representation of sensory perceptible reality only as a means to express himself. Thus, it is naturalistic in spirit, a typical expression of the 19th-century mentality, alive with full, warm humanity.”
Today, almost a century later, these elements in Breitner’s body of work continue to make his art exceptional.