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Mondrian grew up in a milieu that was engaged with artistic and spiritual activities. His father, Pieter Cornelis Mondriaan (1839–1921), had been brought up in aristocratic circles in The Hague. Through his drawings of historical figures, he played an active part in Amersfoort in the political movement that attempted to emancipate Protestant groups and that opposed the prevailing liberalism. Mondrian’s brother Willem Frederik Mondriaan (1874–1944) emigrated in the 1890s to South Africa, where he played an important part in cultural life and also painted. Louis Cornelis Mondriaan (1877–1942), Mondrian’s younger brother, was involved with the emancipation movement in education and also moved in Amsterdam’s artistic circles in the early 20th century.

Mondrian acquired the rudiments of drawing very early from the retired Amsterdam drawing teacher J. B. van Ueberfeldt (1807–94), who had settled near Winterswijk, to which Mondrian’s family also moved. Mondrian was taught by using reproductions of 19th-century works in art journals. Frits Mondriaan (1853–1932), Mondrian’s uncle, active in The Hague, was his example for a career as a painter. Mondrian became qualified to give drawing lessons in lower schools in 1889 and in middle schools in 1892. From 1892 to 1894 he was registered as a pupil at the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam; from 1895 to 1897 he attended evening classes in drawing. He competed unsuccessfully for the Prix de Rome in 1898 and 1901. Having joined the Kunstliefde group in Utrecht in 1892, with whom he regularly exhibited, mostly still-lifes, in 1897 he became a member of the St Luke’s and Arti et Amicitiae groups in Amsterdam. He earned his living partly through such varied work as book illustrating (1894), painting tiles, decorating a ceiling in an Amsterdam canal house, making portraits and copies of paintings in the Rijksmuseum, designing panels for a pulpit and giving drawing lessons.

Mondrian’s work of the 1890s shows that he studied the three current styles: the Hague school, the Amsterdam Impressionists and Symbolism. Landscapes of the fields and rivers south of Amsterdam—at Duivendrecht, Watergraafsmeer and ’T Gein—were favourite subjects, together with boats on the Amsterdam canals. All the qualities that Mondrian developed in the first decade of the 20th century are evident in the works made in Winterswijk, or the ‘Winterswijk group’ (1898–1901). His work was distinctive in colour as well as composition, using garish orange and purple expressively. Unlike the artists of the Hague school, Mondrian eschewed the possibility of distant panoramas and an exaggerated suggestion of space. Frontality and a very high horizon were by this time recognizable features of his drawings, pastels, watercolours and oil sketches. Mondrian’s inclination towards Symbolism is shown in his portraits of girls, while his still-lifes indicate a knowledge of Neo-Platonism. He also was interested in modern theatre (e.g. by August Strindberg) and music. From 1898 to 1904 he produced many watercolours, which were eagerly bought. During a stay of about a year in Noord-Brabant (1904–5), he also began to concentrate on the theme of windmills, a recurring motif up to 1912 (e.g. Mill at Evening, c. 1905; The Hague, Gemeentemus.).

In 1905 a large exhibition of Vincent van Gogh’s work at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam had a lasting influence on many artists, ending the domination of the Hague school and transforming the character of Symbolism and Neo-Impressionism. Through the use of varied colours Mondrian sought new forms of expression in landscapes conceived in 1906–7, near Saasveld. He took up again the theme of evening and nocturnal landscapes, already a subject in the ‘Winterswijk group’, producing compositions, loaded with symbolism, divided into three parts: air, trees and their reflections in water. Details were kept to a minimum, thus emphasizing the main contours. The natural cycle of ‘growth, flowering and passing away’ was also the basis for the ‘flower series’ of drawings, watercolours, pastels and paintings, which from 1906 made up a large part of the artist’s work. From 1906 Mondrian was also intensely involved with THEOSOPHY and ANTHROPOSOPHY, which convinced him that painting could be the expression of both the spiritual essence and the natural exterior. Neo-Impressionist tendencies, given a symbolic significance, predominated after Mondrian stayed in 1908 on the island of Walcheren at the artists’ colony led by Jan Toorop in and around Domburg. From 1908 to 1916 Mondrian stayed annually on the island in Domburg and its surroundings, where the strong vertical and horizontal lines in the landscape, such as church spires and sea views, defined the composition of much of his boldly painted work.

In 1909 Mondrian exhibited works of the previous decade at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam together with his friends the painters Cornelis Spoor (1867–1928) and Jan Sluijters. This exhibition, Mondrian’s first retrospective, was probably intended to show that his artistic development necessarily had to continue on the same lines. As a result, he was regarded as one of the most important representatives of the avant-garde. One year later the St Luke’s group in Amsterdam exhibited works by the ‘Luminists’, the name given to the Dutch Neo-Impressionists. The art scene in Amsterdam underwent a fundamental change in 1909–10, particularly as a result of the opening of a new wing at the Rijksmuseum, the so-called Drucker building, which included works by such artists as van Gogh, Paul Cézanne and Edouard Vuillard. The Dutch public’s acquaintance with such works considerably strengthened the younger generation’s aspirations. Critics who opposed the nationalism of the Hague school called for a movement of Nieuwe Beelding (New Plastic Image) in all the visual arts. The leader of the progressives was the critic Conrad Kickert (1882–1965), who lived in Paris and organized the MODERNE KUNSTKRING, which Mondrian joined. The group’s first exhibition, at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1911, displayed, among other things, the change from Luminism to Cubism that had occurred in the second half of 1910 in the work of many Dutch artists active in Paris. Works by Picasso and Braque were also on view: the first Cubist pictures to be publicly exhibited in Holland. The works that Mondrian exhibited at the show apparently reflect these developments to some extent (e.g. the Evolution triptych, Large Dune Landscape and the Mill at Domburg (The Red Mill) (all conceived second half of 1910; all The Hague, Gemeentemus.). Critics emphasized the general switch to Cubism to explain the ‘geometric’ divisions of the surfaces of Mondrian’s works and the large, smooth areas of colour. The compositions, determined by larger and smaller triangular elements arranged all over the canvas, are monumental, either emphatically vertical or horizontal. Mondrian’s first move towards Cubism is particularly well illustrated by comparing the Luminist and Cubist versions of the Church at Domburg and Church at Zoutelande (1910–11; Pittsburgh, PA, Carnegie).

Kickert convinced Mondrian that he should settle in Paris. He moved in early 1912, initially living in Kickert’s studio in Avenue du Maine. Subsequently he rented a studio in the complex on the Rue du Départ, which was also occupied by Lodewijk Schelfhout (1881–1943) and Diego Rivera, whom Mondrian befriended. The latest developments in art were discussed at the artists’ cafés La Coupole and Café du Dôme, as well as at soirées, such as those given weekly by Kickert in 1912 and 1913. There Mondrian met, for example, Fernand Léger, with whom he formed a lasting friendship, and Georges Braque. Mondrian continued to move between Paris and the Netherlands, however, where he spent some of 1912, 1913 and 1914, mostly in Domburg. He exhibited work in Paris at the Salon des Indépendants, in Amsterdam and at the artists’ colony in Domburg. Dutch Cubists including Mondrian exhibited at the major retrospectives of contemporary art at Cologne (Sonderbund, 1912) and Berlin (Erster Deutscher Herbstsalon, 1913). Moderne Kunstkring continued to form the link between developments in Amsterdam and Paris in 1912 and 1913. Kickert organized a ‘Salle Hollandaise’ at the Salon des Indépendants in 1913. However, after Parisian Cubism passed its zenith in 1913, Kickert also turned away from it, and Moderne Kunstkring declined.

Mondrian’s involvement with Cubism is characteristic of his highly personal approach to various artistic tendencies of the 20th century. The Cubists’ rejection of natural forms and their concept of painting as an autonomous discipline with its own order are fundamental characteristics of Mondrian’s work between 1911 and 1915. In the series of paintings and drawings of Parisian façades, he adopted a particular autonomy of expression and distance from naturalism. From 1912 he ceased giving individual titles to his works, using instead the general designation ‘composition’. The purpose of this was to allow the observer to experience the work as the expression of a ‘higher sentiment’, for example ‘magnificence’ or ‘monumentality’. Mondrian’s treatment of the subject ‘starlit night over the sea’ represents his definitive departure from Cubism: for example in Composition No. 10 from the ‘Pier and Ocean’ series, by adopting an ‘overall’ pattern of horizontal and vertical ‘lines’ he achieved an expression characterized in the art criticism of the day as ‘a sacred voice’. The experience of the painting as an image regardless of its naturalistic basis makes plain how he had progressed towards a completely autonomous kind of painting.

The outbreak of World War I in August 1914 forced Mondrian to remain in the Netherlands. After a short stay in Domburg in 1914 and 1915 he settled in Laren, south of Amsterdam, a base for many intellectuals. He lived there briefly with the composer J. van Domselaer, whom he had known in Paris, who composed Proeven van Stijlkunst (completed 1915) as a result of conversations with Mondrian. He also met Bart van der Leck, Theo van Doesburg (1915) and the Christosophist Dr M. H. J. Schoenmaekers, whose latest study, Het nieuwe Wereldbeeld, had just appeared. Many of the book’s ideas found points of contact with the aesthetic attitudes Mondrian himself had been developing since c. 1908.

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