Pieter Cornelis Mondriaan, better known simply as Piet Mondrian, was a Dutch painter and art theorist. Famed one of the finest artists of the entire twentieth century, he pioneered abstract oil painting in Europe.
Today, we explore Mondrian’s life and the inspiration behind his iconic abstract oil paintings.
Born on 7 March 1872 in Amersfoort (a province of Utrecht in the Netherlands), Mondrian was a second child. The family moved to Winterswijk a few years later.
His father, also called Pieter Cornelius Mondriaan, was a head teacher at a local school. As a qualified drawing teacher, he encouraged his brother (Fritz Mondrian) to paint and draw with the young boy.
Mondrian enrolled in the Academy of Fine Art in Amsterdam in 1892. By this point, he’d qualified as a teacher and started painting himself. Much of Mondrian’s early work is conventional and naturalistic, mainly consisting of landscapes, windmills, and woodland scenes. Wood with Beech Trees (1899) and Windmill in Sunlight (1908) represent his emerging approach.
Inspired by the Impressionism of the Dutch Hague School and Pointillism and Fauvism, they give fascinating insights into Mondrian’s artistic development. Despite their traditional subject matter, these pieces already show some elements of Mondrian’s later modern abstract art.
An intensely spiritual man, Mondrian joined the Dutch Theosophical Society in 1909. He was also profoundly interested in the work of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (the Russian co-founder of the society). Rudolf Steiner’s esoteric “anthroposophy” was also influential.
Almost all of Mondrian’s later work pursued the quest to gain a profound spiritual knowledge of nature and our place in the world. Indeed, in 1921, Mondrian wrote to Steinar saying his Neoplasticism was the only “art of the foreseeable future.” He felt it was the natural creative expression of any true anthroposophist or theosophist.
Mondrian’s arrival in Paris in 1911 marked a transformation in his art. In Paris, Mondrian adored Cubist art, particularly the work of Pablo Picasso and George Braque. He first saw their work at an exhibition held at the Moderne Kunstkring in Amsterdam early in 1911.
Having seen these paintings, Mondrian moved to Paris soon after that. With hopes of integrating amongst the Parisian avant-garde, Mondrian also dropped the second “a” of his Dutch name, “Mondriaan.”
Mondrian quickly adopted an abstracted cubist style in his painting. By 1912, his paintings of trees exemplified this new geometric approach. Mondrian utilizes multiple layers of interlocking shapes and a severely restricted palette in these artworks (such as Trees in Blossom and Composition Trees II). Over the next few years, this progressed to more strictly abstracted and geometric forms, seen in works like Composition No. 10 Pier and Ocean (1915).
Mondrian’s cubist period lasted from 1912 to 1917. After the outbreak of World War One in 1914, he stayed at an artists’ colony in Laren (in the Netherlands). Here, Mondrian met Theo van Doesburg and Bart van der Leck.
Van der Leck’s restrained use of primary colors significantly influenced Mondrian, who moved away from strict cubism. Alongside Van Doesburg, Mondrian also founded De Stijl. With this, a new style of art appeared.
Mondrian described his approach in 1914, “I construct lines and color combinations on a flat surface.” He wanted to reach “the truth and abstract” through horizontal and vertical lines arranged with “harmony and rhythm.”
For the next twenty years, art by Piet Mondrian developed this style. He focused on black lines, squares, and rectangles filled with primary colors.
He returned to France after World War One ended (in 1918) and stayed there until 1938. Mondrian flourished in the avant-garde culture of early twentieth-century Paris. His now iconic grid-based paintings appeared early in 1920.
In early works (such as Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellowish-Green, 1920), Mondrian’s lines are thin and gray, as opposed to thick and black. They also fade away towards the canvas's edge rather than suddenly stopping.
As Mondrian’s style progressed, he gradually simplified his approach to include fewer and fewer forms. He also used white space between primary colors. Famous Mondrian paintings include Composition Red, Yellow, Blue (1930).
Translated as “the style,” Mondrian’s De Stijl movement is heavily associated with Neoplasticism.
As a theory arising in 1917, Neoplasticism informed the De Stijl artistic approach. Theo van Doesburg and Piet Mondrian were the two most famous artists.
Together, they fought for abstract art in its purest form. Mondrian called it “pure, plastic art.” By this, he meant elementary geometric shapes arranged through rational means.
Consequently, Neoplasticism artworks consisted of simple shapes, whites, blacks, and primary colors. The two primary directions (vertical and horizontal) were also acceptable compositional elements.
Composition Red, Yellow, Blue (1930) is one of Mondrian’s famous art reproductions on canvas. It depicts a large red square in the top-right corner. This mass of red counterbalances a bright blue square in the bottom left. A yellow square (bounded by thick black lines) appears on the bottom right.
Around this time, however, Mondrian experimented with “lozenge works.” Also well-known today, they’re tilted 45 degrees. Giving the artworks a diamond shape, they were intensely minimal. One of the most notable lozenge works is Lozenge Composition with Two Lines (1931).
It consists of two black lines against a white backdrop and is a stunning piece of modern abstract art. Indeed, while showing a lozenge work in New York, Katherine Dreier (co-founder of New York City's Society of Independent Artists) placed Mondrian amidst Rembrandt van Rijn and Vincent van Van Gogh as a true Dutch master.
As the 1930s progressed, Mondrian used double lines more often. He believed these double lines gave his works a new dynamism, exemplified in pieces such as Composition with Blue (1937).
With World War Two on the horizon, Mondrian left Paris for London in 1938. With the Nazi advance across Europe, he moved to New York City in 1940. Mondrian remained in America until his death.
In New York, Mondrian’s oil paintings became busier and fuller. With sadness for his earlier life, Mondrian often spent long hours painting until his hands blistered. He was often sick and cried in his studio.
Piet Mondrian’s abstract modern art paintings used a limited color palette. Three primary colors, red, blue, and yellow, dominate his geometric paintings. These primary colors sit against the three primary “values” of gray, white, and black.
In New York, Mondrian gradually moved away from black outlines. Instead, he focuses on colored lines. Mondrian paintings such as New York City I (1942) and the now famous Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942-3) are central to the theme.
These Piet Mondrian artworks deeply influenced subsequent American abstract painting. They are upbeat and lively works, belying the sadness and destruction of World War Two.
In 1943 (aged 71), Mondrian moved to a studio at 15 East 59th Street in Manhattan. He recreated the environment he’d previously found so stimulating back in Europe. This involved painting the walls the same off-white as his canvases. He painted stools and furniture in primary colors and pinned the colored paper to the walls in ever-evolving combinations.
Mondrian said it was the best space he’d ever created. He could only enjoy the studio for a few short months, though, as he died early in 1944.
Mondrian died on 1 February 1944 from pneumonia. Buried at the Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York, nearly 200 people attended the memorial service. Mourners included Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp, Robert Motherwell, and Fernand Léger.
Piet Mondrian art was unique for his highly abstract and spiritual style.
Piet Mondrian paintings searched for universal ideas and values. Indeed, in 1914, Mondrian proclaimed, “art is higher than reality.” He believed artists needed to “use” reality as little as possible.
Mondrian believed reality is opposed to the spiritual. If artists failed in this task, Mondrian claimed, art would have absolutely “no value for man.”
His legacy lives on today, and Mondrian artworks are still some of our online art catalog’s most famous oil paintings for sale. Referenced in fashion, television, marketing, architecture, and computer coding, Mondrian’s unique aesthetic is everywhere. Described by critic Robert Hughes as “one of the supreme artists of the 20th century”, his painterly utopianism shines on.
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