Life and Work of Piet Mondrian, Dutch Abstract Painter

Mondrian Painting at Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Holland
Tim Graham / Getty Images

Pieter Cornelis "Piet" Mondriaan, changed to Mondrian in 1906 (March 7, 1872 – February 1, 1944) is remembered for his distinctive geometric paintings. They are entirely abstract and feature primarily black lines with red, white, blue, and white blocks executed in an asymmetrical arrangement. His work was a significant influence on the future development of Modernism and Minimalism in art.

Early Life and Career

Piet Mondrian
Courtesy Gemeentemuseum, the Hague, Netherlands

Born in Amersfoort, the Netherlands, Piet Mondrian was the son of a teacher at the local primary school. His uncle was a painter, and his father was certified to teach drawing. They encouraged Mondrian to create art from an early age. Beginning in 1892, he attended the Academy of Fine Art in Amsterdam.

Piet Mondrian's earliest paintings are landscapes heavily influenced by the Dutch Impressionist style. Early in the 20th century, he began to move away from realism in his paintings with the bright colors of Post-Impressionism. His 1908 painting Evening (Avond) includes the primary colors of red, yellow, and blue as most of his palette.

Cubist Period

Piet Mondrian Gray Tree
Gray Tree (1911). Courtesy Gemeentemuseum, The Hague, Netherlands

In 1911, Mondrian attended the Moderne Kunstkring Cubist exhibition in Amsterdam. It had a powerful influence on the development of his painting. Later in the year, Piet Mondrian moved to Paris, France and joined the Parisian avant-garde circles of artists. His paintings immediately showed the influence of the Cubist work of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. The 1911 painting Gray Tree is still representational, but Cubist shapes are apparent in the background.

In the next few years, Piet Mondrian began trying to reconcile his painting with his spiritual ideas. This work helped move his painting beyond representational work permanently. While Mondrian was visiting relatives in the Netherlands in 1914, World War I began, and he remained in the Netherlands for the rest of the war. 

De Stijl

Piet Mondrian Composition Checkerboard
Composition: Checkerboard, Dark Colors (1919). Courtesy Gemeentemuseum, The Hague, Netherlands

During the war, Piet Mondrian met fellow Dutch artists Bart van der Leck and Theo van Doesburg. They were both beginning to explore abstraction. Van der Leck's use of primary colors had a profound impact on Mondrian's work. With Theo van Doesburg he formed De Stijl ("The Style"), a group of artists and architects who began publishing a journal by the same name.

De Stijl was also known as Neoplasticism. The group advocated pure abstraction divorced from naturalistic subject matter in works of art. They also believed that compositions should be distilled down to vertical and horizontal lines and shapes using only black, white, and primary colors. The architect Mies van der Rohe was heavily influenced by De Stijl. Piet Mondrian remained with the group until 1924 when Van Doesburg suggested that a diagonal line was more vital than horizontal or vertical ones.

  

Geometric Painting

Piet Mondrian Red Blue Yellow
Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow (1930). Courtesy Museum of Modern Art, New York City

At the end of World War I, Piet Mondrian moved back to Paris, and he began painting everything in a wholly abstract style. By 1921, his trademark method reached its mature form. He used thick black lines to separate blocks of color or white. He used the primary colors red, yellow, and blue. Even though his work would be readily identifiable as Mondrian for the rest of his life, the artist continued to evolve.

At first glance, the geometric paintings appear to be composed of flat colors. However, as the viewer moves closer, you realize that most of the color blocks are painted with discreet brush strokes running in one direction. Contrasting the areas of color, the white blocks are painted in layers with brush strokes running in different directions. 

Piet Mondrian's geometric paintings originally had lines that ended before the edge of the canvas. As his work developed, he painted clear to the sides of the canvas. The effect was often one in which the painting looked like a portion of a larger piece.

In the mid-1920s, Mondrian began producing the so-called "lozenge" paintings. They are painted on square canvases that are tilted at a 45-degree angle to create a diamond shape. The lines remain parallel and perpendicular to the ground.

In the 1930s Piet Mondrian began using double lines more often, and his color blocks were usually smaller. He was excited about the double lines because he thought they made his work even more dynamic.

Later Work and Deth

Piet Mondrian Broadway Boogie Woogie
Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942-1943). Courtesy Museum of Modern Art, New York City

In September 1938, as Nazi Germany began to threaten the rest of Europe, Piet Mondrian left Paris for London. After Germany invaded and conquered both the Netherlands and France, he crossed the Atlantic to relocate to New York City where he would live for the rest of his life. 

The last works that Mondrian created are much more visually complicated than his early geometric work. They almost began to look like maps. Piet Mondrian's final completed painting Broadway Boogie Woogie appeared in 1943It is very bright, upbeat, and busy compared with Mondrian's work in the 1930s. The bold colors usurp the need for black lines. The piece reflects the music that inspired the painting and New York City itself.

Mondrian left behind the uncompleted Victory Boogie Woogie. Unlike Broadway Boogie Woogie, it is a lozenge painting. Art historians believe the final two paintings represented the most significant change in Mondrian's style in more than two decades.

On February 1, 1944, Piet Mondrian died of pneumonia. He was buried at Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn. Mondrian's memorial service was attended by nearly 200 people and included such acclaimed artists as Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp, Fernand Leger, and Alexander Calder.

Legacy

Yves Saint Laurent Mondrian Dresses
Yves Saint Laurent 1965 Collection. Erich Koch / Anefo - Nationaal Archief

Piet Mondrian's mature style of working with brightly colored abstract geometric figures influenced the development of Modernism and Minimalism in art. It also had substantial influence well beyond the art world.  

In 1965, Yves Saint Laurent decorated shift dresses with Mondrian style thick black lines and color blocks for his Fall Collection. The dresses were wildly popular and inspired Mondrian-style designs on a wide range of other clothing.

Mondrian-style designs have been included on multiple album covers and featured in music videos. In 1985, the hotel Le Mondrian opened in Los Angeles featuring a nine-story painting on one side of the building inspired by the work of Piet Mondrian. 

Piet Mondrian Fast Facts

  • Full Name: Pieter Cornelis Mondriaan
  • Occupation: Artist
  • Born: March 7, 1872, in Amersfoort, Netherlands
  • Died: February 1, 1944, in New York City, New York, U.S.
  • Education: Rijksakademie van beeldende kunsten
  • Selected Works: Composition II in Red, Blue and Yellow (1930), Composition C (1935), Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942-1943)
  • Key Accomplishment: Co-founder of De Stijl
  • Famous Quote: "Art is the path to being spiritual."

Sources and Further Reading

  • Deicher, Susanne. Mondrian. Taschen, 2015.
  • Jaffe, Hans L.C. Piet Mondrian (Masters of Art). Harry N. Abrams, 1985.