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Swiftly painted figures

In 1882, Van Gogh first met George Breitner. At the time, both young artists were in contact with members of the Hague School. Van Gogh was studying with Anton Mauve, while Breitner had worked in the studio of Willem Maris and contributed to Hendrik Willem Mesdag‘s Panorama (1880-81). After they met, Van Gogh and Breitner sometimes went out drawing together in and around The Hague. They shared a special interest in life in the poorer parts of town. In 1883, Breitner spent a short time painting in the province of Drenthe, where Van Gogh and Anthon van Rappard were then working. Van Gogh and Breitner later went their separate ways, the former to France and the latter to Amsterdam.

Detail of Neighbourhood in The Hague

Olieverf op papier, op paneel geplakt, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

G.H. Breitner, Neighbourhood in The Hague, c. 1883

One common feature in the early work of the two men is their rapid brushwork, their loose application of paint. This shows the influence of their Hague School teachers. But in fact, their loose brushstroke (or tache, a term from French art theory) had its origin in the groundbreaking work of the Barbizon painters. Dutch art collections included many paintings of the Barbizon School. This tache is also a prominent feature of Hague School paintings.
The Barbizon painters, who had been active in France from about 1830 to 1880, were well represented in Dutch collections. During the 1880s and 90s, Mauve managed to assemble a large set of Barbizon landscapes, including some by Daubigny and Rousseau. This body of work strongly reflected Mesdag’s own preference for rapidly composed, loosely painted landscapes, in which the tache always played a central role. Some of the Barbizon landscapes were incomplete, but Mesdag and his friends appreciated them none the less for their spontaneous, free-spirited quality, a quality then known in the Netherlands as ‘impressionism’.
For example, let us look at how Daubigny painted fishermen’s wives in Normandy around 1874-76. Close examination reveals that each figure is composed of just a small number of quick brushstrokes. The anonymous woodcutters in Rousseau’s Mort des Innocents (1847), who are pulling down a tree, are no more than a few loose dabs of white and dark brown.

Olieverf op doek, Museum H.W. Mesdag Den Haag

C.F. Daubigny, detail of Sunset near Villerville, 1874

Olieverf op doek, Museum H.W. Mesdag Den Haag

C.F. Daubigny, detail of Sunset near Villerville, c. 1876

Olieverf op doek, Museum H.W. Mesdag Den Haag

T. Rousseau, detail of Mort des Innocents, 1847

Olieverf op doek, Museum H.W. Mesdag Den Haag

H.W. Mesdag, detail of The Construction of the New Port of Enkhuizen, 1886

In Mesdag’s painting The Construction of the New Port of Enkhuizen (1886), the figures have clearly been rendered with the same type of quick brushstroke. Further examination of the figures in paintings from Breitner’s Hague period shows a similarly rapid style of brushwork. In Breitner’s small, nearly abstract painting of an alley in The Hague (c. 1883), his depiction of two women has many features introduced earlier by the Barbizon and Hague Schools: a rapid painterly style, the wet-on-wet technique, and a similar approach to figures.


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