The entirety of Breitner House bloomed with the maturity of a summery Dutch still-life.
“[…] The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.”— Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time.
Our room at Breitner House greeted us weary travelers with wines, fruit baskets, and gourmet treats: chocolates, cheese, crackers, biscuits, champagne grapes! The room was one of two suites that was rented out to guests. It opened out into a private garden where birds whistled even on a cloudy day and picturesque brambles and briars curled over the flowering bushes. In the morning, we were lavished with a sumptuous banquet and the maxim: “Breakfast like an emperor, lunch like a king, sup like a beggar.” Even though it was thirty degrees outside, the zenith of this year’s wintry spring, the entirety of Breitner House bloomed with the maturity of a summery Dutch still-life. The owners, Camilla and Guido Braaksma, even sat in the parlor at night, smoking and exchanging tales with their globetrotting guests.
A variety of historic houses line the edges of Oosterpark, which have been inhabited by the moguls of Dutch art and literature even unto the present day. But one need not be an upcoming painter or writer to stay at Breitner House. Breitner House, which is named for the famous Tachtiger painter Georges Breitner, also housed the nineteenth-century Arts and Friendship society members Isaac Israels, Geo Poggenbeek, and Jacob Simon Hendrik Kever.
I include myself in this list of Breitner houseguests, as well as all those who have stayed in Breitner House since Camilla and Guido refurbished the place as a luxury-style B&B. If there are any private spaces that yield even more powerful and colorful experiences than the public locality of a place, Breitner House is one of them.
We arrived in a terrible state of thirst, hunger, and fatigue. A tall, graceful lady—wisps of hair falling from her braid to grace her face—answered the door. This was Camilla. She was clothed in paint-stained work clothes, and though she looked to be nearing her sixties, she seemed quite strong. Embarrassed to receive guests in work attire, she excused herself, but no scrap of clothing could conceal the quality of her character.
She immediately whisked us weary travelers into her opulent dining room. The walls were tiled with rows and rows of magnificent paintings, two of which were painted by Breitner himself. There, she sat us down and brought in a miniature dessert tower laden with pastries, madeleines, and berries along with a tray of tea. She even offered us prosecco, but it was too early in the day for that.
Even though I wanted nothing more than a nap, there was something about Camilla that captivated me. She did not wish to keep us from our beds. She merely wanted to get to know us and make us feel welcome. Perhaps it was the caffeine and sugar, but before I knew it, I was somehow no longer tired. She told us about her exciting life as an actress, but as was evident by the exquisite décor of Breitner House, she had other artistic talents as well, such as painting and music. We talked about everything from Dutch-Japanese diplomacy to the part Breitner House played in building a network between Tachtiger artists.
Camilla, who also ran an antiques store downstairs, had decorated the rooms with various old treasures from around the world. These resonated with me, piquing my interest as I passed them by, as if they had asked a question of me. These objects were nostalgic in of themselves, and thus, attempted to draw out the nostalgia I kept locked up inside, stirring the involuntary act of remembering.
But these objects and I had no memories together. I had no memories of Breitner House and no memories of Amsterdam; no memories of times before. Every nook and cranny of the house, it seemed, was brimming with memories—of beautiful things that will never again be witnessed on this earth—and these tugged at my brain, as if trying to make a home there in tissue still-living. But I had nothing—no words, no images, no affairs with which to understand them—just a vague sense of frustrated nostalgia and tea dish of Madeleine cakes, which, when dipped into my cup of milky tea, could only conjure up blank screens.
I had an appreciation and knowledge of the house’s history, which I had gleaned from Wikipedia and Google Images. Surprisingly, there was enough substance in that to engage Camilla in conversation and acquire from her real memories. But I hadn’t experienced the ongoing density of books, let alone the museums housing Breitner’s work.
Can we form iconic memories that will be yearned for in the future as we now do for the days of old? When Camilla purchased Breitner House, an old woman, hunched over a walker and hobbling at a snail’s speed, had approached her. The old woman grabbed Camilla by the sleeve and pulled her down close. She pointed towards the second floor of the House, ready to divulge her secret.
“When I was a young woman,” she said, “I used to dance the Charleston upstairs.” As the old woman’s face crinkled into a sparkling smile, she continued on her way.
Breitner House is located on: Oosterpark 87. 1092AW Amsterdam, Netherlands