Friday, March 12, 2010

Girl in a Kimono

She was born in 1877 in Zaandam, in the province of North Holland. When she was 16, *Geesje Kwak (a name perhaps as unlikely-sounding to Dutch ears as it is to other languages) 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. Except that one day her path crossed that of the artist George Hendrik Breitner.

Breitner, already something of a name in the art world of the time, had recently acquired a studio on Amsterdam's Lauriergracht (Laurel Canal); one of the prettiest parts of the city. In 1892 the artist had visited an influential exhibition of Japanese art in The Hague (which style had earlier inspired Vincent van Gogh, among others), and he had enthusiastically acquired several kimonos and some decorative room screens as a result.

Now 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 in the kimonos. Breitner, then 36, seems to have been meticulous about details. There is 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 model sessions, but the series of paintings which resulted makes it plain that Geesje had something - an x-factor - which tapped into a true well of inspiration for the artist. Breitner's brushwork in the canvasses shows extraordinary verve and confidence, as if nowhere was it necessary to go over the same brushstroke twice. They are images which indicate that the artist knew exactly where he needed to go to achieve the result required, and what he needed to do to get there.

Posed either in a red or in a silvery-white kimono, Geesje is there in the canvasses as a tangible presence, even when only her face and her hands are 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 perfectly maintained.

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. It is thanks to the artist's 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. And indeed; among his collection we also come across his photographs of Geesje, some of which (below) are clearly intended as references for his paintings.

One photograph by Breitner in the Leiden Museum print collection (below) shows a thoughtful Geesje posing hand-on-chin. This gelatine-silver print offers us perhaps our clearest look at the girl who inspired the artist. I wonder sometimes what she must have thought about it all. Was she bemused? Was she flattered by the unexpected attention? In any event, she did not feature further in Breitner's work. There are two reasons for this.

The first reason is that, incomprehensibly, the series of paintings featuring Geesje met with either an indifferent or a scoffing critical reception when they were exhibited. The critical reaction was cold enough, apparently, to discourage the artist further in this direction, and he went on to other themes and subjects. The second reason is Geesje herself. Two years later she emigrated with her older sister Niesje to Pretoria in South Africa.

We have one last spectral glimpse of Geesje (above), together with her older sister, taken by a professional photographic studio in Pretoria. Just two years after the photograph was taken, Geesje died before reaching her 22nd birthday. The canvasses which are her legacy are now prized among the museum collections which house them, and the one which is now in a private collection reached an auction price in 2003 of almost *600,000.

Artist: George Hendrik Breitner
Works: Girl in a Kimono (Geesje Kwak)
Medium: Oils
Locations (from the top): Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (1893). Gemeentemuseum, The Hague (1893). Private Collection (1893). Enschede Museum (1894). Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (1894).

Source: George Hendrik Breitner, 1857-1923: schilderijen, tekeningen, foto's, by J.F. Heijbroek, Kees Keyer, et al. Uitgeverij Thoth, Bussum, 1994.

*Curiously (and perhaps ironically), when given its correct Dutch pronunciation, the name actually sounds like the word 'geisha'.


  1. Oh, Maestro, you brought tears to my eyes…such an inspiring story. These paintings always mesmerize me. She seems so gracious, melancholic and tranquil like she carries knowledge beyond our world, I feel like I see a little girl’s face but I sense an old soul presence

  2. Thank you, Lolita! I think that it was Breitner's genius that both recognised and captured that 'old soul' in Geesje. The first painting in this series (the one in the Stedelijk Museum) strikes me as particularly prescient - almost eirily so.

  3. wow. I am so happy I found this site. Thank you so much for all this information and wow. This story of Geesje is so touching! :( Do you know why she died?

  4. Aleksa, I'm so pleased that you enjoy my blog! I'm afraid I Haven't been able to trace any further reasons for the cause of Geesje's early death. Hers is a poignant story indeed. It touched me to write this post as much as Breitner's paintings themselves.

  5. Geesje Kwak sounds very Dutch! Thanx for your story on her!
    M dohle, Holland

    1. I'm pleased that you enjoyed reading about Geesje, Max. Her story is indeed a poignant one.

  6. I commend this most interesting and sympathetic tale. I can add a few more details.
    In 1895 the three Kwak sisters, Anna (born 1873), Geesje (1877-1899) and Niesje (1879-1911) emigrated to South Africa for health reasons (tuberculosis).
    Anna became homesick and returned to Holland where she died. The date of her death is not known but she was young when she died of tuberculosis.
    Geesje died in Pretoria in 1899 of typhoid fever during the Boer War when Pretoria was besieged by the British Forces. The situation in Pretoria during this period was very bad.
    [Niesje, who married Cornelis Jacobus Swierstra (1874-1952) in 1900, was my great-grandmother.]
    See also:

    1. Many thanks, Anon. for providing this extra information. The story of Geesje and her sisters is such a touching one, and that you are related to the sister who survived her makes these events very immediate!

  7. I live in Amsterdam and for me Geesje Kwak is the Dutch Mona Lisa. Right now there is an exhibition in our Rijksmuseum where they brought all the paintings of Geesje and Anna together. In our City Archive I found the following information about the family Kwak: In 1880 came from Zaandam to Amsterdam, Jan Kwak (1843-1913) his wife Willempje Posch (1847-1893) and their children Arend (1871-1960), Anna (1873-1939), Geesje (1877-1899) and Niesje (1879-1911). In Amsterdam where born Gerrit (1881, who died the same year) and Aafje (1882-1905). In 1895 Geesje and Niesje emigrated to South-Africa. In 1903 also Aafje left to South-Africa, but she came back 17 months later. Anna Kwak married bread baker Jan Wolthuis, they adopted a child (Antonia Brico) and emigrated to San Francisco. Antonia Brico (1902-1989) was later a famous conductor. Brother Arend Kwak stayed in Amsterdam, his job was bread baker, he married and got 7 children. Im very interested to know how Geesje was doing from 1895 till 1899 in Pretoria. Wat work was she doing there? Did she had a fiance? Wathever. Any information is more then welcome.

    1. Thank you for the information, Richard. I hope perhaps to get to the exhibition myself - and it would indeed be interesting to turn up any further information about Geesje.

  8. Hello, I found this site before, but never read the comments, thanks Anonymus and Richard for your extra information about Geesje Kwak - I'm writing a novel about Geesje and Breitner so to say biografical fiction. Fiction between facts, I'm desperate for more information, for example why would these young girls have emigrated to South Africa. Is it possible that they knew Cornelis Swierstra already from Amsterdam and followed him?

  9. Marjet
    There is a lot of information on Geesje Kwak (1877-1899) in the publication 'Breitner Girl in a Kimono' put out in 2016 by the Rijksmuseum and is worthwhile reading.
    Geesje's younger sister was Niesje Kwak (1879-1911) whose husband, Cornelis Jacobus Swierstra (1874-1952) studied entomology at the University of Amsterdam. He moved to South Africa in 1894 and later became Director of the Transvaal Museum 1922-1946. I don't know if the sisters know him when they migrated a year later in 1895. The father of Cornelis was a shopkeeper in Amsterdam.
    I hope your novel comes to fruition.


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