Pieter Cornelis Mondriaan was born in the town of Amersfoort in the Netherlands in 1872 (he would drop the second ‘a’ from his surname in later life, as a way of distancing himself from his Dutch roots). His father was the headmaster of a Calvinist primary school. His uncle, Frits, was a landscape painter, and gave him his first instruction in art.
Aged 20, Mondrian moved to Amsterdam to study painting at the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten, where he received a classical training. After graduation, he took a job drawing bacteria under a microscope for scientific researchers at Leiden University. His early works were landscapes in the Hague School tradition: that is, broadly naturalistic scenes of the Dutch countryside.
In 1909, he became deeply involved in the Theosophical Society’s ideas of universal enlightenment. Theosophism was an important philosophy for other abstract pioneers of the time, including Wassily Kandinsky and Hilma af Klint, and, for Mondrian, it inspired a new theoretical approach to his work.
By the early 1910s, drawn to Picasso and Braque’s ideas of Cubism, he had moved away from the Symbolism of his early work and relocated to Paris in 1912. There, he began pushing Cubism to new geometric extremes with paintings such as Composition VII (1913) — a work in which the hallmark gridlines of his iconic later style can be seen emerging.
Mondrian would continue to develop his ideas through writing as much as painting and, by the 1920s, in essays such as ‘Le Néo-Plasticisme’ (1920), had developed an extraordinary amalgamation of spiritualism, art theory and exuberant exaltation of modern life. He found jazz’s improvisatory, rhythmic qualities enthralling, and jazz would come to inspire many of his greatest masterpieces, such as Broadway Boogie-Woogie (1942–43).
From 1917 onwards, he was a leading force in the De Stjil movement, and by 1918 had settled on the bold grid-work paintings in red, yellow and blue that would come to define his achievements — Tableau 2 (1922) being a beautiful example. Cubism had abstracted representation, but Mondrian’s Neo-Plasticism, as he called it, was pure abstraction — a complete purging of representation from the canvas in his quest for a superior, transcendental reality.
The threat of Nazism forced Mondrian to London in 1938. With the coming of the Blitz, he then moved to New York in 1940, where he died of pneumonia in 1944, aged 71.
Farmstead on the Gein screened by tall trees with streaked sky
Boerenerf in het Gooi geflankeerd door jonge boompjes (Farmyard in Het Gooi flanked by saplings)