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The life of the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian

The life of the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian

The life of the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian

Mondrian was one of the great pioneers in Dutch modernist art that blazed a trail like never before - leaving a mark not only on art but also design, architecture and fashion. His work is instantly recognisable and he is strongly associated with The Hague, Paris and New York, but there’s plenty to ponder and admire beyond the bold rectangles.

We're about to guide you through some fascinating things you may not have known about Piet Mondriaan.

Mondrian's early life in the Netherlands

The Mondrian family had roots in The Hague going back centuries, and Mondrian’s uncle was a prominent member of The Hague school of painters, but Piet Mondrian (originally Mondriaan) was born in 1872 in Amersfoort. Due to Piet’s father’s new position as a headteacher in a primary school, the family moved to Winterswijk in the east of the Netherlands. In his youth, Piet Mondrian moved to Amsterdam to study at the Academy of Fine Art.

Mondriaan or Mondrian?

Mondriaan’s name changed to Mondrian. The reasons were quite simple: he moved to Paris in 1911. In order to feel more integrated with the artists of the Paris avant-garde scene and to signify his departure from his native country, he removed one “a” from his surname, thus becoming internationally known as Mondrian. That’s no big deal when you consider that his ancestors back in the 1600s spelt their name Monderyan.

Nature and spirituality in Mondrian's paintings

His paintings have always been rooted in nature - even paintings like "Composition with Red, Blue and Yellow" (1929). Although he developed an abstract style quite early on in his artistic practice, he never strayed from painting nature-related objects. 

His painting is also rooted in spirituality: "Art is higher than reality and has no direct relation to reality. To approach the spiritual in art, one will make as little use as possible of reality, because reality is opposed to the spiritual. We find ourselves in the presence of an abstract art. Art should be above reality, otherwise, it would have no value for man." (1914)

Mondrian was always concerned with abstraction: for example, he predominantly tended to paint trees and as time went by, he created abstract versions of trees. By 1913, he was depicting trees and scenes from nature whilst accentuating their vertical and horizontal lines. Three years later, his paintings were almost exclusively comprised of vertical and horizontal lines. 

If you view his paintings chronologically, like in the video below it is easy to trace the level of abstraction in his work over time.

Squares and rectangles in red, blue, yellow and white

Mondrian believed in using three primary colours (red, blue and yellow), three primary values (white, grey and black) and two primary directions (horizontal and vertical), as can be seen in his most seminal work, for instance, "Lozenge" (1921), "Composition with Red, Blue and Yellow"(1929) and "Broadway Boogie-Woogie" (1942-43).

While in Paris, Mondrian absorbed many aspects of cubism into his painting style, but it was a means of developing his style, rather than a branch of art that became his main identity. Back in the Netherlands, he became one of the painters of De Stijl along with Dutch artists Bart van der Leck and Theo van Doesburg. Other artists from De Stijl began mimicking Mondrian's style.

In Mondrian's own personal essays and his artist manifesto, he used the term Neo-Plasticism to describe his own painting style. The idea is that painting is stripped down to its bare essentials. Colour, line and form - the basic elements of painting - are used to convey absolute truths.

Mondrian's wider influence beyond painting

Fashion designer Yves Saint-Laurent designed 60s shift dresses directly influenced by Mondrian, with the characteristic boxes and lines. Hermes created a bag and Nike released Mondrian-inspired trainers. In IT, there are even programming languages named after him (one named Piet and the other one called Mondrian.)

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of De Stijl artistic movement, The Hague City Hall was transformed into the largest Mondrian painting in the world, with the characteristic squares and rectangles in primary colours and bold black lines.

Mondrian, a world-famous artist

You don't need to even regard yourself as an art enthusiast to be fascinated by Mondrian or certain other Dutch artists, for that matter. Dutch art has had a broad appeal across the world and Dutch artists like Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Escher and many others never cease to capture the imaginations of people from all over.

Mondriaan building The Hague

The Hague City Hall

Rachel Deloughry

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Rachel Deloughry

Rachel is a writer, editor and digital content creator, passionate about the arts, culture and lifestyle.

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