The De Stijl Art Movement Explained Through 3 Artists

De Stijl is a modern art movement that originated in the Netherlands. The de Stijl artists are known for using simple forms and colors like red, yellow, and blue.

Jan 17, 2021By Dea Cvetković, BA and MA in Art History
de stijl modern art
Details from No. VI / Composition No.II by Piet Mondrian, 1920; Contra-Construction Project (Axonometric) by Theo van Doesburg, 1923; Broadway Boogie Woogie by Piet Mondrian, 1942-43

 

The de Stijl art movement, also known as Neoplasticism, lasted from 1917 to 1931. Two of the most famous painters who created artworks within this movement are Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg. The de Stijl also functioned as an architectural style which can be seen in works designed by the architect Gerrit Rietveld. His furniture pieces and houses look like the de Stijl paintings come to life! The movement was founded in the Netherlands and means “The Style” in Dutch. Let’s take a look at the ideas that inspired the movement and the works of the three of its most famous artists: Piet Mondrian, Theo van Doesburg, and Gerrit Rietveld. 

 

Phases Of The De Stijl Art Movement

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No. VI / Composition No.II by Piet Mondrian, 1920, via Tate, London

 

The first de Stijl manifesto was published in the de Stijl magazine in November of 1918. The manifesto was edited by Theo van Doesburg and signed by artists Vilmos Huszar, Piet Mondrian, G. Vantongerloo, poet Antony Kok, and architects Robert van’t Hoff and Jan Wils. 

 

The de Stijl art movement was inspired by the Neoplatonic philosophy and ideas developed by the mathematician Dr. M.H.J. Schoenmaekers. In his work called The New Image of the World, Dr. M.H.J. Schoenmaekers wrote about three colors that we associate with the de Stijl – blue, yellow, and red. For the mathematician “yellow radiates, blue recedes, and red floats.” Schoenmaekers wrote about how works of art should have mathematical explanations behind them.

 

Artist Piet Mondrian, probably the most famous member of the de Stijl art movement, spent a lot of time in Laren around 1915 where he was in contact with the mentioned mathematician. Mondrian wanted to explore his ideas through art. At this time, Mondrian didn’t focus on painting only, he also wrote theoretical pieces influenced by Neoplatonic ideas. One of his essays is called Neoplasticism in Painting.

 

theo van doesburg contra construction
Contra-Construction Project (Axonometric) by Theo van Doesburg, 1923, via MoMA, New York

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The de Stijl art movement can be divided into three phases. The first phase is the formative one, centered in Holland from 1916 to 1921. After the first phase, some of the original members of the movement moved on to other things and resigned from the group. The second phase, a more international one, lasted until 1925. This period was marked by the influence of the Proun style developed by the Russian avant-garde artist El Lissitzky. While the third phase lasted until the movement’s end in 1931.  

 

Most of the works of the de Stijl art movement focus on simple lines and forms. The de Stijl artists were interested in ideas of harmony and order in art. Three colors dominate the movement: red, yellow, and blue. The art movement was also influenced by Cubism and its abandonment of realistic representation of things. Things in paintings no longer had to look like they do in real life. 

 

Piet Mondrian

sun church in zealand piet mondrian
Sun, Church in Zeeland; Zoutelande Church Facade by Piet Mondrian, 1909-10, via Tate, London

 

Piet Mondrian was born in 1872 and grew up in a family of painters. His father, who enjoyed drawing as a hobby, was a teacher in a town near Amsterdam, Netherlands. His uncle, however, worked as a professional painter and gave Mondrian his first painting lessons. Mondrian then moved to Amsterdam to attend the Academy of Fine Arts. During his early twenties, Mondrian worked many jobs – he taught art, created drawings for textbooks, painted portraits, and made copies of paintings from museums. 

 

Some of Mondrian’s influences were the Barbizon School and the Hague School. These influences are visible in the artist’s early works like At Work (On the Land). Artists like Jan Sluyters and Jan Toorop, who painted spots in pure colors in pointillistic manners inspired Mondrian as well. He was also influenced by Impressionist art and Neo-Impressionist works. Mondrian also had his Symbolism phase. In these works, you can see traces of what was yet to come with the de Stijl art movement. 

 

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Pier and Ocean 5 (Sea and Starry Sky) by Piet Mondrian, 1915, via MoMA, New York

 

While living in Paris in the early 1910s before World War I, Mondrian got in touch with Cubist art which made a great impact on him. Inspired by Cubism, Mondrian started painting his plus and minus paintings which consisted of many horizontal and vertical lines. The Ocean paintings are a good example of this phase of Mondrian’s work. During the war, Mondrian researched new compositions in his studio. Verticals and horizontals still dominated his paintings.

 

The artist was also spiritual and interested in theosophy. The art of the de Stijl art movement was supposed to represent spiritual and total harmony. The style was also supposed to be universal and present itself in many different fields like architecture, furniture, and product design. Mondrian used simple forms and primary colors but created many fascinating and perplexing pieces. 

 

In 1916, Mondrian met Bart van der Leck who used pure colors. By combining the artistic languages of these artists, a new style was born. Mondrian called this style the new plastic painting. He believed that the abstract picture was more real than the one imitating reality. 

 

broadway boogie woogie piet mondrian
Broadway Boogie Woogie by Piet Mondrian, 1942-43, via MoMA, New York

 

Mondrian’s Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow is a typical work of the de Stijl art movement and it’s widely recognized in the history of modern art. Mondrian’s paintings served as an inspiration to the famous French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. In 1965, Saint Laurent designed six dresses in the famous de Stijl colors and shapes. These dresses became one of the most iconic fashion pieces of the sixties. 

 

His most colorful, vivid, and rhythmic composition is probably the Broadway Boogie Woogie painting, inspired by the New York music scene. Mondrian moved to New York City in 1940. He was inspired by the Big Apple for numerous paintings of his New York series.

 

Theo Van Doesburg

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De Stijl NB 73/74 by Theo van Doesburg, 1926, via MoMA, New York

 

Theo van Doesburg was one of the co-founders of the de Stijl art movement. He was born in Utrecht, the Netherlands in 1883 as Christian Emil Marie Küpper. After meeting Piet Mondrian, the two formed the de Stijl group. Van Doesburg founded and edited the de Stijl art journal in 1917. He was a painter, writer, poet, and architect. As a writer, he used pen names I. K. Bonset and Aldo Camini.

 

Van Doesburg’s de Stijl style started showing in his early works after he met the poet Evert, the painter Thijs Rinsema and the architect Cees Rienks de Boer. With de Boer, van Doesburg worked on a district in a town called Drachten. The district later became known as the Parrot neighborhood because of its vivid colors. In 1921, van Doesburg created the color schemes for the exteriors and interiors in the neighborhood for its sixteen residential buildings and one school. However, the project turned out to be quite controversial and the residents of Drachten did not love the result. After a year, the houses were repainted to more standard and less eye-catching color schemes. 

 

cafe aubette maquette
Café Aubette Maquette by Theo van Doesburg, Jean Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp, 1927, via MoMA, New York

 

Together with Dada artists Jean Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Theo van Doesburg designed the Cafe L’Aubette in a mid-eighteenth-century building in the Place Kleber in Strasbourg, France. The interior was designed in a typical de Stijl manner. The space was supposed to function as a cafe, bar, cinema, and restaurant. Taeuber-Arp was the first one invited to decorate and design the place, after which she invited her husband and fellow dadaist Jean Arp and van Doesburg to collaborate with her. The original setup of the design was destroyed by the Nazis when the project was marked as degenerate art. Today, we know how the Cafe L’Aubette looked from photographs, maquettes, and drawings. Van Doesburg also designed ashtrays, neon signs, and slogans for the L’Aubette. The cafe was finished in 1928. 

 

Another female dadaist Emmy Hennings described the place: “The walls, covered with paintings, give the illusion of almost endlessly vast rooms. Here painting makes the visitor dream, it awakens the depths in us. The house may become a treasure box, a reliquary, and one can always look at it with new eyes.” The Cafe L’Aubette is the last true de Stijl architectural piece.

 

The De Stijl Architecture Of Gerrit Rietveld 

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Red and Blue Chair by Gerrit Rietveld, 1918-23, via MoMA, New York

 

Gerrit Thomas Rietveld was also born in Utrecht in 1888. He started making furniture at his father’s workshop when he was only 11 years old. He opened his own furniture shop in 1917. He is best known for designing the famous Rietveld Schröder House in Utrecht. Rietveld developed the architectural part of the de Stijl art movement. In 1918 he created the famous Red and Blue chair. The colors and the forms of the chair look similar to the lines and colors that are seen in paintings of the de Stijl art movement. Rietveld also designed the asymmetrical Berlin Chair in 1923, which inspired more asymmetrical furniture pieces that followed. The chair was made from eight separate oak planks which were colored in black, white, and grey. 

 

gerrit rietveld shroder house de stijl
Rietveld Schröder House, 1924, via Rietveld Schröder House Website

 

His best-known project is probably the Rietveld Schröder House that looks like a 3D version of a de Stijl painting. The house was built in 1924 and functioned as a private residence until 1985. Rietveld also had his studio on the ground floor of the house. His client, Mrs. Truus Schröder-Schräder worked with the architect on the design and became close to the members of the de Stijl art movement herself. The house had sliding walls that would transform the place easily and make a smaller space seem more spacious. Red, yellow, and blue emphasized the elements and lines of the house. The furniture inside was also designed by Rietveld. Today, the Rietveld Schröder House is a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site.



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By Dea CvetkovićBA and MA in Art HistoryDea has a Bachelor and a Master’s degree in history of Art from the University of Belgrade. Her main fields of interest include modern and contemporary art, American art, gender studies, photography, and film. She loves taking pictures, watching movies, traveling, and wandering around museums.