In 1893 George Hendrik Breitner started work on a series of richly coloured paintings of a Dutch girl dressed in Japanese kimonos – his Kimono Girl paintings. These kimono still lifes all featured the same, dreamy 16-year-old girl, Geesje Kwak, a hat-seller in Amsterdam.
Breitner owned three kimonos and some Japanese screens and oriental carpets, which he was inspired to buy after attending an 1892 exhibition of Japanese prints in The Hague. He also saw examples of Japonisme (Japanese influence on Western art) during a long stay in Paris in 1884.
Breitner was fond of recording Amsterdam life in paintings and photos, and saw himself as the people’s painter. He developed an informal style, using rough brushwork to portray working class subjects in everyday settings. He also adopted photography as an aid to painting; a few other artists used this pioneering technique, but traditionalists viewed the innovation with great suspicion. For his portraits of girls in kimonos, Breitner allowed his model Geesje to relax in his studio, perhaps playing with her doll or stroking a cat, while he photographed her in various poses.
Geesje Kwak, a frail 16-year-old with large soulful eyes, is a striking figure in Breitner’s collection of voluminous, vividly coloured kimonos. In contrast to the usual vigour of his outdoor scenes, these intimate paintings evoke a tranquil, exotic dreamworld, although they provoked a mixed reception from critics at the time for what some regarded as their indecent poses. The artist made no attempt to get his model to dress in the traditionally formal Japanese manner. As one critic punned: “Geesje was no Geisha” (by an odd coincidence, Geesje and Geisha have a similar pronunciation in Dutch: ‘Hay-sha’, where H sounds like the -ch- in Scottish ‘loch’ ).
George Hendrik Breitner’s kimono girl paintings occupy an important place in Dutch art history as icons of Japonisme, greatly admired for their aesthetic beauty and simple composition.
Geesje Kwak emigrated to South Africa with a sister in 1895 but, sadly, died of tuberculosis four years later. She was just 22.