By 1911, the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian (1872–1944) had painted predominantly realist landscapes for well over a decade, progressing from academic to post-Impressionist styles, until he started radical experiments in about 1908. His paintings then became even more modern, with tiles of colour, high chroma brushstrokes, and more. But he continued to paint representations of what he saw in front of him in the countryside near Amsterdam and on the North Sea coast.
In 1911, Mondrian visited an exhibition of Cubist art in Amsterdam which brought another major change to his paintings.
Horizontal Tree (1911) is one of his early experiments in merging Cubism with the stylised form of a leafless apple tree.
He continued to paint the towers of churches in Zeeland. In his Zeeuwsche Church Tower from 1911 its surfaces are tending towards areas of flatter colour, losing their modelling, and there are geometric shapes rather than colour tiles in the sky.
He still painted some figurative works, including this triptych, Evolution from 1911.
The Red Mill (1911) continues his move towards areas of flat colour.
In 1911, Mondrian left Amsterdam and moved to Paris. To mark his move into the avant garde of that city, he dropped the second ‘a’ from his surname, going from Mondriaan to Mondrian. He became increasingly influenced by Georges Bracque and the Cubist works of Pablo Picasso.
In Composition No. 11 from 1913, the whole motif has been overtaken by a tesselation of rectangles.
Mondrian returned to the Netherlands in 1914, and, as he was still in that country when war broke out, was stuck there for four years. He spent much of his time in the artists’ colony at Laren, where he was influenced by other artists who were moving towards abstraction, including Bart van der Leck and Theo van Doesburg, with whom he founded the group De Stijl, ‘the style’. Laren is a historic small town to the east of Amsterdam which had hosted a series of movements, including Dutch Impressionism and its successors.
Composition in Oval with Color Planes 1 from 1914 shows the rectangles changing in colour, and the rising importance of straight black lines.
In about 1916, he interrupted his journey into abstraction and returned to re-examine a series of landscapes which he had painted prior to 1908. For these, he went to the outskirts of the city of Amsterdam, to a small village about 6 km (4 miles) to the south-east, in the winter. As if he was painting his last farewell to his realist style, he made at least two canvases of a Farm Near Duivendrecht, in the Evening (above), and Farm near Duivendrecht (below).
Those were followed in about 1917 by this imposing Windmill, which looks as if it’s on the crest of an ocean swell. These appear to have been Mondrian’s last representational paintings.
When the Great War ended, he returned to Paris, where he started to paint his famous grids of coloured rectangles and straight black lines. These reached maturity by about 1921.
Composition with Red, Yellow, Blue, and Black (1921) is an example of the abstracts for which Mondrian remains best-known today. He moved from Paris to New York in 1938, where he continued to paint these characteristic abstracts until his death in 1944.
Mondrian himself wrote extensively about his art, and there have been many theses, articles and books written by others about his abstract paintings, as if his previous gloriously realist work had never happened.