In our countdown to Amsterdam, we show sketches made in Amsterdam by some of the ‘old masters’ and pictures of the views as they are now.

by Roger Klaassen

George Hendrik Breitner (1857 – 1923) was a dutch artist, famous for his paintings of Amsterdam life. He was also one of the very first street photographers. His paintings and photos are of a major importance, documenting Amsterdam around the 1900s – just as we will be documenting Amsterdam as it is from 24 to 27 July 2019.

Breitner was born in Rotterdam and as a boy, he loved drawing. His father was against a career as an artist, but gave in when Breitners drawing teacher had a serious conversation with him. Breitner studied at several art schools and worked as an apprentice in several studios.

In the early 1880s, he lived in The Hague and met several times with Vincent van Gogh, who also lived in The Hague at that time. Both saw themselves as ‘painters of the people’, but they didn’t like each others works – Breitner paintings made Van Gogh think of ‘mouldy wallpaper’.

In 1882, Breitner wrote a letter that reads like an early forerunner of our Urban Sketchers Manifesto: ‘I will paint people on the streets and in their houses, the streets and houses they have built, their lifes in particular. I want to become […] ‘le peintre du peuple’ [painter of the people]. I will paint history, and I mean history in its broadest sense. A market, a wharf, a bunch of soldiers under a hot sun or in the snow.’

In 1886, Breitner moved to Amsterdam. He wanted to capture bare, pure reality in his paintings, resulting in paintings dominated by grays and browns. In an Amsterdam expression weather with a gray dark sky is called ‘Breitner weather’.

This is Breitners painting of the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) on the Dam, the central square of Amsterdam. The Nieuwe Kerk is now an exhibition hall, and it is also used for royal coronations and royal weddings.

Breitner painted the houses along the on the Damrak – you pass it when you walk from the Central Station to the Dam Square. As you can see, most of the houses have hardly changed over the last century. The tower in the background is the church tower of the Oude Kerk (Old Church) – which is right in the middle of Amsterdams famous Red Light District. I don’t mean to insult anyone, but it is an open secret that clergy and women of pleasure have been ’tolerating’ each other very well for ages.

Let us hope we won’t have ‘Breitner weather’ when we sketch these houses in July.