Piet Mondrian is mainly known as one of the De Stijl founders, along with Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931). Although he widely experimented with art form, especially in his early career, his most iconic works, which still resonate today, are of a geometrical abstract form, known as the leading figure, and the only one who carried the Neoplasticism aesthetic throughout all of his works since the 1910s.
Mondrian is best known for being the founder of Neoplasticism and the cofounder of the De Stijl. His most famous works exhibit a feeling of purity and simplification of visual elements that result in very methodical and abstract compositions. For him, these paintings represented more than simple abstract images, they represent the spiritual structure, which serves as the foundation for the underlying structure of the visible universe; an aesthetic that can be transposed to other mediums and art forms: to design, sculpture, and ultimately architecture – where one can inhabit a neoplastic painting, as said by the artist.
The 19th century Western Europe saw a wave of classicism well untils its end. However, and after Realism had sprung, many artists started to engage in new aesthetic adventures, mostly after the 1880s. Mondrian grew up in the middle of this aesthetic revolution. He was born in the same year Claude Monet (1840-1926) created his Impression, Sunrise(1872), which led to the name of the subsequent movement – Impressionism; by the time he was 12 years old, Pointillism emerged in the paintings of George Seurat (1859-1891); he was 18 when the post-impressionist, Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), committed suicide; and when he was 30 years old, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) creates one of the paintings that would have a resonating effect on his work, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907).
A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-1886) by Georges Seurat
Belle Époque: It is considered to be a Golden Age, between 1880 and 1914, when Europe was thriving in all aspects, and especially Paris, the European artistic center at that time. This golden period occurred during the French Third Republic, in a time marked by hopefulness, peace, colonial expansion and economical, scientific, technological and cultural prosperity. In the words of the historian R. R. Palmer (1909-2002): “European civilisation achieved its greatest power in global politics, and also exerted its maximum influence upon peoples outside Europe.” During this time, culture in France bloomed with an abundance of musical, literary, theater and artistic masterpieces. In the particular case of visual arts in Paris, this is a period characterized by a widespread rejection of Impressionist ideas, when many Post-Impressionist movements emerged such as Symbolism, Fauvism, Expressionism, Art Nouveau and other Avant-Garde movements like early Cubism and Abstraction. The prosperous era came to an end when World War I began in 1914, with horrors that would profoundly contrast with the optimism and vibrancy of the Belle Époce.
New York, the new capital of Western Art:Mondrian lived through both World Wars, and after the second, he moved to New York, as many other prominent European artists did since the end of the First War – artists like Arshile Gorky (1904-1948), Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), Salvador Dalí (1904-1989), Max Ernst (1891-1976), Josef Albers (1888-1976) and Hans Hofmann (1880-1966). The contact American artists had with the European tendencies brought by these artists, was a key factor to the new status of the city, as the new cultural center of the Werthern World. New York became abundant with vibrant new artistic aesthetics. This exposure led to the creation of museums and galleries of modern art, such as the Museum of Modern Art in 1929, the Guggenheim Museum ten years later (formerly known as the Museum of Non-Objective Painting), and the Art of this Century gallery in 1941. In 1936, the American Abstract Artists group was founded, a group that Mondrian himself would join upon his arrival to the city. Together, the abstractionists directed many exhibitions, lectures and publications, and were ultimately responsible for the great progression of abstract art in America.
Mondrian was obsessed with his new aesthetic and order of abstract art. However, that is not the only thing the artist was passionate about. The artist very much enjoyed dancing, particular waltz, tango, and also other energetic and fast dancing styles. His love for dancing would also migrate to his last works of the Broadway Boogie Woogie, a very popular dance at that time in New York city.
Born in 7 March 1872, in Amersfoort, a Dutch province, Mondrian lived under the strict pulse of his father, a headmaster of a primary school, who was a religious fanatic. In 1892, he was allowed to join the Rijksakademie van Beeldende in Amsterdam, in a controlling environment, being constantly watched by Protestant friends of the family in the community. Around 1910, he became an assistant of Professor Reindert Pieter van Calcar (1872-1957) at Leiden University, having the task to draw bacteriological specimens, a job which granted a steady income in a time of artistic uncertainty. In 1911, after his mother passed away in 1909, attracted by the eclectic Paris art scene, the artist moved to the French city (living, where he officially started his career, further exploring new artistic trends, such as Pointillism, Fauvism and Cubism. However, he had to return to his home in 1914 to attend the needs of his father, who had become very ill, and was forced to remain there upon the outbreak of the First World War. In spite of that, it was there that the artist started to develop his iconic neoplastic style.
Reconstruction, Mondrian’s Atelier at 26, rue du Départ, Paris – The atelier in 1926 (CC BY 3.0, by Sailko)
After returning to Holland, he met Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931) in 1915, a painter, architect and designer. In 1917, they both founded the magazine De Stijl (lasting until 1928), Mondrian contributing with an article entitled “The New Structuring of Painting”, and subsequently founded a new movement. In this year, the artist made his first abstractioned compositions, des plus-minenuos et des moins, where he explored vertical and horizontal rhythms. After the war ended, in 1918, he returned to Paris, where he continued to work with Theo, and started to collaborate with other artists as well.Artists, architects and designers joined together in an effort to reach an ideal of total and pure abstraction, while providing the fundamental order and harmony across all arts, something completely new and different from what was being done in Paris. The emerging style was coined by Mondrian as the New Plastic Art, Neoplasticism. Then in 1918, the artist introduced the linear grid in his compositions. In 1919, Mondrian returned to Paris, where he explored the colour’s purism. In his Paris period, between 1919 and 1938, Mondrian published Le Neoplasticism (1920). In 1921, he then reduced the colour palette to only the primary colours, black, white and grey, in the Composition with Large Red Colour Fields, Yellow, Black, Gray, and Blue (1921). By 1925, the artist started to get some recognition as a big contributor to modernism. He later joined the Abstraction-Création in 1931, an organization more open to new art forms. In the next year, he would be gifted for his 60th birthday with a retrospective exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum. In 1939, Mondrian moved to London upon the outbreak of the Second World War – where he started producing his Trafalgar Square (1939-1943), and later moved to New York in the next year. It was there he had his first solo exhibition in 1942. He passed away just a few years after, on 1rs February 1944.
The beginning of Mondrian’s artistic journey is characterised as a period of many experiments, experiments with different styles and techniques, from traditional dutch painting, to fauvism, pointillism and cubism, before he found his own aesthetic. Initially he painted in a realistic style, works such as still life, portraits, landscapes and mainly trees.
Dead Hare (1891)
Portrait of a Girl with Flowers (1900-1901)
Still life with glass bottle, metal and ceramic vessels and fruit (c. 1908)
By the turn of the century, he started to switch styles, exploring other artistic methods such as Post-Impressionism tendencies (Pointillism, Fauvism and others) and Cubism, exploring the plastic side of the visual forms and the medium. His works from this time were mainly of, firstly, portraits of women and, later, impressionist and fauvist landscapes (mills, sunsets, sea and moonlight nights) and flower paintings, reaching acclamation when he brought those styles back home to Holland (for example: Mill in Sunlight, 1908). Mondrian was still searching for his own voice and aesthetic, translating his take on the styles of van Gogh (1853-1890) and Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), after 1909. This phase coincided with the passing of his mother in 1909, a time when Mondrian entered a gloomier and somber phase (in sync with the style of the two artists just mentioned), towards a more synthesised composition, with darker and unsaturated colours or light and cold pastel colours. This would extend to his time in Paris, between 1911 and 1914. At this time, the artist searched for spiritual guidance in the Theosophical Society, creating a large triptych, Evolution (1911), considered to be a turning point for the artist, even though it was viewed as “cold and lifeless”.
Mill in Sunlight (1908)
The work of Paul Cézzane (1839-1906), Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and other cubists, had a big impact on the artist’s trajectory, especially the latter. After his first gaze at Picasso’s works, at an exhibition dedicated to early Cubism (analytic style), Mondrian started to experiment with cubist compositions himself, for example in Still Life with Gingerpot I (1911-1912). At this point, he began reducing the elements of his compositions to the elementary, experimenting with grids while representing buildings and trees in a schematic manner. Mondrian maily simplified organic elements of nature (like trees), into elliptical shapes, until they reached rectangular forms. Key examples of this are The Gray Tree (1912) as well as his Pier and Ocean series (1915), where Mondrian applied the grid-like composition and the somber colour palette of cubists. This last series, produced while he was in the Netherlands, shows the beginning of his new style, Neoplasticism. His works from this phase are lighter in colour and show a synthesised and schematic version of reality, establishing a link to the spiritual and religious sphere (theosophy) as well, unlike his previous works.This time, between 1914 and 1919, was a period when the artist first started to explore and expand his own style towards pure abstraction. After returning to Paris in 1919, he continued to further explore this new style, officially launching the new movement with his Composition with Large Red Colour Fields, Yellow, Black, Gray, and Blue (1921). By this time, he had already associated himself with other Dutch artists, like Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931), Gerrit Rietveld (1888-1964), Vilmos Huszár (1884-1960) and Georges Vantongerloo (1886-1965), in the development of this new aesthetic order. However, Mondrian left the De Stijl in 1925, due to creative disagreements with Theo – his views on art (elementarism) and especially his daring use of diagonal lines in his compositions.
Still Life with Gingerpot I (1911-1912)
Portrait of a lady (1912)
Composition A (1920)
In 1932, Mondrian focused particularly on the role line, as he had always been a fan of drawing, seeing in his point of view that line played a fundamental part in the creation of a painting, and no artist had really explored the full potential of that particular element, according to him. He left Paris in 1938 and moved to London, to later emigrate to New York in 1940, about the time of World War II. Here, Mondrian carried a last change in style in his final years, where he substituted the black lines for colourful lines and aligned small squares, explicit in New York City I (1942), inspired by the metro lines and the vibrancy of the city, and in the Broadway Boogie Woogie paintings, inspired in the vibrant dance.
Mondrian looked at the purpose of art as a collective one (uniformity), and something that should be devoid of any personal touch of the artist. For him, only a work divested of individualism would reach the ultimate goal of universal comprehension. Alongside fellow painter, designer and architect, Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931), Mondrian explored an idealistic path of pure primary colours, flat shapes and dynamic opposites. His view on modern art turned into a new transversal visual language, which he described as “abstract real” painting. In addition, he also had a socialist belief that art should be for everyone. He asserted his vision with compositions that reached perfect harmony, and were oblivious to any emotion or drama. The artist also believed that this balanced asymmetry to the composition was a crucial point in the development of modern art.
Mondrian’s 1920s paintings, explored the purity of visual elements to its splendor. His austere art of maximum reduction, using only the fundamental elements (primary colours and the simplest of geometric forms), while displaying them in an asymmetrical order created by man, created a counter image of nature (against the natural organic order), and not an abstraction of it. The artist created his own colour mixtures, never using the paint straight out of the tube – very specific hues of red, blue and yellow. His compositions sure look like they were made with the help of rulers, instead Mondrian methodically thought out his compositions, and the placement of the lines.His first neoplastic compositions can be divided in two types: the peripheral and the central types. The first one is characterized by a large square that occupies most of the composition (usually in white or grey), near the center, surrounded by narrow shapes. This main square adapts its perception according to its asymmetrical position. This privilege use of the square shape adds to the ultimate goal of purity, and balance. The second one, adopts a different compositional arrangement. These can be identified by the use of two dominant lines, crossing the composition near the center vertically and horizontally. Both types include extra compositions inside the individual parts of the composition.
Composition with blue, yellow, red and gray (1922)
Tableau I (1921)
He also produced many drawings throughout his whole career, filling multiple sketchbooks which accompanied him across all of his artistic evolution – from detailed drawings of landscape to his loose depiction of trees and schematic studies of his abstract compositions.
Trees at the Gein: rising moon (1907)
Two trees (summer 1912) from the Sketchbook leaves (1912-1914)
Sheet D: three rectangle compositions / verso: fragment (1925), from a Sketchbook (1925)
In his first dealings with art, Mondrian focused mainly in landscape and still life painting, using a colour palette that resembles the same as Rembrant’s (1606-1669), composed mainly of browns, ochres and russets. After coming into contact with the Parisian art scene, he became intrigued by Fauvism and Pointillism, as well as fascinated by van Gogh’s (1853-1890) energetic painting, translating those into his work. After the Fauvism phase, Modrian was most inspired by the dissective characteristics of Cubism (especially impressed by Picasso’s (1881-1973) work), when he tried to merge multiple planes together. The artist took the methodical approach and pushed it beyond the mere cubist fragmentation, into the realms of pure abstraction.
Bust of an old man (1632) by Rembrandt | Bust portrait of an old man (c. 1899) by Piet Mondrian
Self-portrait (1889) by Vincent van Gogh | Zeeland farmer (1909) by Piet Mondrian
Abstract Landscape (unknown date) by Charles H. Walther | Landscape with trees (1912) by Piet Mondrian
Mondrian’s iconic works continue to influence design and remain well-known in today’s popular culture. His work inspires others to extend to other creative realms (architecture, typography, interior design and fashion design), not only in France and Netherlands, but also across many other countries. Alongside Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) and Kasimir Malevich (1879-1935), he is today seen as one of the founding fathers of abstract art, and is seen as the leading figure of geometric abstractionism.
Contra-Composition with Dissonance XVI (1925) by Theo van Doesburg. (CC BY 3.0, by Sailko)
Rietveld Schröder House (1924), by Gerrit Rietveld, Utrecht, The Netherlands. (CC BY-SA 3.0, by Andreas 2309)
Dress from the “Mondrian Collection” (1965) Yves Saint Laurent. (CC BY-SA 4.0, Yves Saint Laurent, photographed by Gray Geezer)
“Mondrianesque skin” (1984) by Cesar Pelli (West Wing expansion of the Modern Museum of Art). (CC BY 2.0, by hibino)
ROC Mondriaan, The Hague, detail of the exterior. (CC BY 2.0, by Rob Oo, taken in 2018)
“After a long cultural development, our insight has matured in order that the abstract in painting – as a universal – can be brought into a clearer design.”
“To approach the spiritual in art, one will make as little use as possible of reality, because reality is opposed to the spiritual.”
Artist: Piet Mondrian Title: Dead Hare Date: 1891 Medium: Oil on canvas Size: 80 x 51 cm Location: Kunstmuseum, The Hague
Artist: Piet Mondrian Title: Haystack Date: 1897-1898 Medium: Watercolor and gouache on paper Size: 64 x 47 cm Location: Kunstmuseum, The Hague
Artist: Piet Mondrian Title: Composition No. IV Date: 1914 Medium: Oil on canvas Size: 88 x 61 cm Location: Kunstmuseum, The Hague
Artist: Piet Mondrian Title: Composition Trees II Date: 1912-1913 Medium: Oil on canvas Size: 98 x 65 cm Location: Kunstmuseum, The Hague
Artist: Piet Mondrian Title: Mill in Sunlight Date: 1908 Medium: Oil on canvas Size: 114 x 87 cm Location: Kunstmuseum, The Hague
Artist: Piet Mondrian Title: Landscape with Trees Date: 1912 Medium: Oil on canvas Size: 120 x 100 cm Location: Kunstmuseum, The Hague
Artist: Piet Mondrian Title: Portrait of a Lady Date: 1912 Medium: Oil on canvas Size: 115 x 88 cm Location: Kunstmuseum, The Hague
Artist: Piet Mondrian Title: Zeeland Farmer Date: 1909 Medium: Oil on canvas Size: 69 x 53 cm Location: Kunstmuseum, The Hague
Artist: Piet Mondrian Title: Trafalgar Square Date: 1939-1943 Medium: Oil on canvas Size: 145.2 x 120 cm Location: Museum of Modern Art, New York
Artist: Piet Mondrian Title: Portrait of a Girl with Flowers Date: 1900-1901 Medium: Oil on canvas Size: 53 x 44 cm Location: Kunstmuseum, The Hague
Artist: Piet Mondrian Title: Composition with blue, yellow, red and gray Date: 1922 Medium: Oil on canvas Size: 38 x 34.8 cm Location: Private Collection
Artist: Piet Mondrian Title: Tableau I Date: 1921 Medium: Oil on canvas Size: 103 x 100 cm Location: Kunstmuseum, The Hague
Artist: Piet Mondrian Title: Composition A Date: 1920 Medium: Oil on canvas Size: 90 x 91 cm Location: Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Rome
Artist: Piet Mondrian Title: New York City I Date: 1942 Medium: Oil on canvas Size: 119.3 x 114.2 cm Location: Musée National d’Art Moderne – Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
Artist: Piet Mondrian Title: Broadway Boogie-Woogie Date: 1942-1943 Medium: Oil on canvas Size: 127 x 127 cm Location: Museum of Modern Art, New York
Artist: Piet Mondrian Title: The Red Tree Date: 1908-1910 Medium: Oil on canvas Size: 70 x 99 cm Location: Kunstmuseum, The Hague
Artist: Piet Mondrian Title: Gray Tree Date: 1911 Medium: Oil on canvas Size: 79.7 x 109.1 cm Location: Gemeentemuseum, The Hague
Artist: Piet Mondrian Title: Apple Tree in Bloom Date: 1912 Medium: Oil on canvas Size: 78.5 x 107.5 cm Location: Kunstmuseum, The Hague
Artist: Piet Mondrian Title: Evolution Date: 1911Medium: Oil on canvas Size: 183 x 87.5 cm Location: Gemeentemuseum, The Hague
Artist: Piet Mondrian Title: Still Life with Glass Bottle, Metal and Ceramic Vessels and Fruit Date: c. 1908 Medium: Oil on canvas Size: 66 x 120 cm Location: Private Collection
Artist: Piet Mondrian Title: Victory Boogie Woogie Date: 1944 Medium: Oil on canvas Size: 127.5 x 127.5 cm Location: Kunstmuseum, The Hague
Artist: Piet Mondrian Title: Composition with blue, yellow, red and gray Date: 1921 Medium: Oil on canvas Size: 95.7 x 95.1 cm Location: Gemeentemuseum, The Hague
Artist: Piet Mondrian Title: Composition with Color Fields Date: 1917 Medium: Oil on canvas Size: 48 x 60.5 cm Location: Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam
Artist: Piet Mondrian Title: Still Life with Gingerpot I Date: 1911-1912 Medium: Oil on canvas Size: 65.5 x 75 cm Location: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
Artist: Piet Mondrian Title: Grazing Calves Date: 1901-1903 Medium: Oil on canvas Size: 50.2 x 69.3 cm Location: The Mondriaan House, Amsterdam
Artist: Piet MondrianTitle: Trees at the Gein: rising moon Date: 1907 Medium: Charcoal and pencil on paper Size: 63 x 75 cm Location: Kunstmuseum, The Hague
Artist: Piet Mondrian Title: Two trees, from the Sketchbook leaves (1912-1914) Date: summer 1912 Medium: Pencil on paper Size: 10.2 x 17 cm Location: Private collection
Artist: Piet Mondrian Title: Sheet D: three rectangle compositions / verso: fragment Date: 1925 Medium: Charcoal on paper Size: 23 x 29.8 cm Location: Private collection Arne and Milly Glimcher, New York City
Artist: Piet Mondrian Title: Bust Portrait of an Old Man Date: c. 1899 Medium: Oil on canvas Size: 50.3 x 40 cm Location: Maison de Ventes Leclere, Paris
Artist: Piet Mondrian Title: Composition 10 Date: 1939-1942 Medium: Oil on canvas Size: 79.5 x 73 cm Location: Private Collection