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Object details

Evening on Dam Square in Amsterdam
93 × 178 × 3 cm
Inventory number: 
lower right: G. H. Breitner

More about this work

This painting has a remarkably large, horizontal format. The bustling city passes by in the evening twilight in a single broad, swift movement. It is the ‘impression’ that is important, the detail less so. The square is merely suggested, the forms barely worked up at all. The buildings, brown and dark, loom up sketchily but true to life, the shop windows sparkle with an orange light, the tramcar mysterious, the street lamps bright yellow.
People are coming and going. Servants are rushing across the street to do the last bits of shopping for the day. In the centre foreground a maidservant in her distinctive bright blue uniform with white tulle cap is taking the hand of a smartly dressed little girl, probably her employer’s daughter. The figure to the right of her, consisting of just a few smudges of paint, is a working-class woman. Skinny dogs are racing up and down. In the middle ground factory girls in grubby aprons are coming home from work. Maidservants in light-coloured dresses stand out against the dark square. In the background two tram horse, a black and a grey, with the same red collar around their necks stand waiting for customers, while fashionable ladies and gentlemen stroll along and gawp at chic window displays.
George Hendrik Breitner started making a number of paintings of Dam Square at twilight in 1890. As in this one, he often chose the south side of the square, by the Rokin, facing the background of the display windows of Vijgendam and the side wall of Beursstraat, which was reserved for posters and advertising hoardings. He captured the figures very quickly, as if he wanted to record as much of their bustle as possible before they vanished from view. Unlike the French Impressionists, who chronicled the scenes on boulevards and squares out in the open air, it was not acceptable for Dutch painters to go around painting out of doors in the city. So Evening on Dam Square, Amsterdam was actually painted in the seclusion of Breitner’s studio. He noted down everything of interest in his sketchbooks while he was out on the street and then worked up his countless drawings, often in combination with photographs, in compositions that create the illusion of snapshots.
In 1886 Breitner moved from The Hague to Amsterdam, where he very soon revealed himself to be one of the most important artists of his generation: the so-called ‘painters of the Eighties’, also known as ‘the Dutch Impressionists’. Amsterdam, an inexhaustible sources of subjects, was their muse. More than anybody else, Breitner immersed himself in its atmosphere. His paintings capture the hubbub of the city, the construction works, the social inequality, and the entertainments, not all of which were pleasant. In 1882, the young Breitner was already writing to his patron, the grain merchant Adriaan Pieter van Stolk: ‘I myself, I shall paint the people on the street and in the houses the streets and houses that they have built, life above all. I shall try to become the ‘peintre du peuple’, or rather already am because I want to be. I wanted to paint history, and so I shall, but then history in its widest sense. A market, a quay, a river, a troop of soldiers under a scorching sky, or in the snow, is just as good and even more history than "Spinoza’s nieces come to visit him accompanied by their Mama".’ In Evening on Dam Square, Amsterdam Breitner shone the spotlight on ordinary folk. His quest for true life in the metropolis was inspired by the naturalism of the French novelist Emil Zola (1840-1902). Like him, Breitner looked at the poor and tried to depict their lives as truthfully as possible. This scene is a striking impression of that quest. Breitner portrayed the working-class women dispassionately, made their faces even uglier than they were, and accentuated their primitive appearance even further with his loose, rough brushwork.

Acquisition history

purchase: kunsthandel E.J. van Wisselingh & Co, Amsterdam, 1931

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