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Piet Cornelis Mondrian

 (1872 - 1944)
Piet Cornelis Mondrian was active/lived in New York / Netherlands, France, Holland.  Piet Mondrian is known for abstract, non-objective and grid painting.

Piet Cornelis Mondrian

    MON-dree-ahn  speaker-click to hear pronunciation  click to hear

A painter born Pieter Cornelis Mondriaan in the Netherlands, he was an important contributor to the De Stijl art movement led by Theo van Doesburg and committed to abstraction and non-objective painting focused on geometric lines and the three primary colors.  Ever underlying his work was a constant quest for spiritual truth.

He spent much of his career in Paris and also had a residency in New York City where he died of pneumonia at age 71.  He was raised in a family strictly committed to Protestantism.   His father taught drawing at a private school and his uncle, Fritz Mondriaan, was a known painter who influenced and encouraged the interests of his nephew.  In 1912, he changed the spelling of his name to Mondrian to signify his departure from the artistic influences of his Dutch culture.

In 1892, Mondrian entered the Academy for Fine Art in Amsterdam.  Like his father, he taught in primary school, but also pursued painting with early work being realistic and impressionistic rural landscape scenes.  Then he explored a variety of styles to find his own way including Fauvism and Pointilism.  Paintings of this time period are in the Mondrian museum, the Gemeentemuseum, in The Hague.

"In 1908 he became interested in the theosophical movement launched by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky in the late 19th century. Blavatsky believed that it was possible to attain a knowledge of nature more profound than that provided by empirical means, and much of Mondriaan's work for the rest of his life was inspired by his search for that spiritual knowledge."

In 1912, Mondrian settled in Paris and moved to Paris where the Cubism of Picasso and Braque strongly affected him.  But he differed from the Cubists in that he injected spiritual quests into his paintings.  During World War I, Mondrian, having returned to his homeland for a visit, was forced to remain there.  It was during this time that he spent much time at the Laren Art Colony with Theo van Doesburg and his associate, Bart van der Leck, whose focus on primary colors had a strong influence on Mondrian. 

With these two artists, Mondrian founded De Stijl, a Dutch word meaning Style.  Of this theory, Mondrian' said in 1914:  "I construct lines and color combinations on a flat surface, in order to express general beauty with the utmost awareness. Nature (or, that which I see) inspires me, puts me, as with any painter, in an emotional state so that an urge comes about to make something, but I want to come as close as possible to the truth and abstract everything from that, until I reach the foundation (still just an external foundation!) of things…I believe it is possible that, through horizontal and vertical lines constructed with awareness, but not with calculation, led by high intuition, and brought to harmony and rhythm, these basic forms of beauty, supplemented if necessary by other direct lines or curves, can become a work of art, as strong as it is true.["

Mondrian returned to Paris at the end of the War and, relishing the intellectual freedom he found, stayed there until 1938, and continued to exert abstract influence on art expression. During this time, he began his signature grid paintings, the work for which he remains best known.

When the war ended in 1919, Mondrian returned to France, where he would remain until 1938. Immersed in the crucible of artistic innovation that was post-war Paris, he flourished in an atmosphere of intellectual freedom that enabled him to embrace an art of pure abstraction for the rest of his life.  Mondrian began producing grid-based paintings in late 1919, and in 1920, the style evolved for which he came to be renowned began to appear.

With the Nazi threat to Paris, Piet Mondrian moved to London in 1938, and in 1940 moved to New York City for the remaining two years of his life.  As he aged, he continued working, and drove himself so hard that he had blisters on his hands and made himself sick.

The year before his death, Mondrian wrote to art historian James Johnson Sweeney, planner of a retrospective exhibition of the artist's works at The Museum of Modern Art in New York: "Only now I become conscious that my work in black, white, and little color planes has been merely 'drawing' in oil color.  In drawing, the lines are the principal means of expression; in painting, the color planes.  In painting, however, the lines are absorbed by the color planes; but the limitation of the planes show themselves as lines and conserve their great value."

In the fall of 1943, Mondrian, age 71, moved into his second New York Studio at 15 East 59th Street, and "set about again to create the environment he had learned over the years was most congenial to his modest way of life and most stimulating to his art.  He painted the high walls the same off-white he used on his easel and on the seats, tables and storage cases he designed and fashioned meticulously from discarded orange and apple-crates.  He glossed the top of a white metal stool in the same brilliant primary red he applied to the cardboard sheath he made for the radio-phonograph that spilled forth his beloved jazz from well-traveled records, Visitors to this last studio seldom saw more than one or two new canvases, but found, often to their astonishment, that eight large compositions of colored bits of paper he had tacked and re-tacked to the walls in ever-changing relationships constituted together an environment that, paradoxically and simultaneously, was both kinetic and serene, stimulating and restful. It was the best space, Mondrian said, that he had ever inhabited. Tragically, he was there for only a few months: he died of pneumonia in February 1944."

He is buried in the Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.


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Biography photo for Piet Cornelis Mondrian
Photo by Arnold Newman copyright of Newman's estate.

Photograph of Piet Mondrian, 1942

About  Piet Cornelis Mondrian

Born:  1872 - Amersfoort, Holland
Died:   1944 - New York City
Known for:  abstract, non-objective and grid painting