The work of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian is among the most recognizable and influential art of the early 20th century. Best known by his nickname Piet, the artist was born Pieter Cornelis Mondriaan in 1872 in Amersfoort, Netherlands. The subject of a strict Protestant upbringing, Piet initially followed in his father’s footsteps as a teacher, and practiced painting in his free time. With training by his uncle, a professional artist, Piet learned to paint, and his father taught him how to draw. In stark contrast to the graphic style he later became famous for, Mondrian’s early work reflects the pastoral setting in which he was raised and follows the spirit of Dutch Impressionism.
In his early 20s, Mondrian enrolled in the Rijksacademie van Beeldende Kunsten to formally pursue a career in the arts. After completing his education, Mondrian decided to move to Paris – Europe’s center of the visual arts and culture at the time. Though his time there was cut short by World War I, the art and artists that Mondrian discovered there would prove influential to his development of the De Stijl principles years later.
In 1914, Mondrian happened to be visiting the Netherlands when the war broke out, and so he was forced to remain there. Cut off from the vibrant influence of Paris, Mondrian moved to the Laren artists’ colony, where he made the acquaintance of Bart van der Leck and Theo van Doesburg. They were both exploring methods of geometric abstraction, and the three artists inspired one another to continue pushing the boundaries of abstraction.
Their work was a reaction and further evolution of Cubism, which had reached its peak just a few years earlier, and to which Mondrian had been exposed during his time in Paris. While Cubism began the theory of deconstructing objects and physical forms to create flatness alluding to a representational composition, the three artists worked to develop a unique style centered around pure abstraction as a representation of both the spiritual world and the underlying, unifying structure of the physical world.
Together with Van Doesberg, Mondrian formalized De Stijl. Dutch for “the style” – De Stijl was a formalized artistic theory which Mondrian later published as “De Nieuwe Beelding in de schilderkunst” (“The New Plastic in Painting”) in twelve installments from 1917–18. De Stijl or Neoplasticism no longer required a physical object, person, or sense of space as inspiration and strove to convey “absolute reality” through the purest geometric forms and color.
Unlike other movements of the period, De Stijl was a joint project by its participants – artists and architects – who were all encouraged to continue developing their own approach to the aesthetic, both from a visual and conceptual standpoint. In architecture in particular, De Stijl was a radical departure from the principles of the Amsterdam School, which popularized expressionist architecture throughout Germany and the Netherlands at the time.
The De Stijl artistic principles of straight horizontal or vertical lines, use of primary and non-colors (black, grey, and white), and the importance of asymmetry or balance by opposition, would become Mondrian’s sole artistic focus for the duration of his career until his death in 1944. In Mondrian’s later years, even his studio looked like his paintings – with graphic furniture (often made by the artist himself using found materials) painted his signature primary color palette.