In 1892 Mondrian moved to Amsterdam to study at the Academy of Fine Arts. Aside from a few sojourns, he remained in the city for twenty years. During this time, Amsterdam underwent rapid expansion and its character became increasingly urban. Working concurrently with the Barbizon School artists in France, The Hague School artists in Holland began to respond to the urbanization of their environs with pictures that celebrated the virtues of unspoiled nature. Mondrian's uncle Fritz Mondriaan was a leading figure in The Hague School group and Piet Mondrian's portrayal of the waterways, farmhouses, mills, and bridges along the Amstel and Gein rivers shows a strong affiliation with his work.
Painted en plein air in 1906-1907, the present painting depicts the Oostzijdse Mill near Amsterdam—an icon of the Dutch polder landscape—seen from across the river Gein. Robert Welsh has written, “Built in 1874 as a replacement for its predecessor destroyed by fire, this mill nonetheless reflects the same form and function as the Broekerzijder Mill dating from the seventeenth century. It was positioned close to an earth mound formerly part of a fort complex near Abcoude, of which Mondrian may or may not have been aware. He certainly would have been aware from the inscription ‘1874’ on its ‘beard’ (a wooden extension below the cap at the front) that this was not an 'ancient' monument from the time of Rembrandt. His treatments of it nevertheless have something Rembrandtesque about them, perhaps reflecting both his residence on the Rembrandtplein in 1905-6 and the celebrations of that master during the first of these years but also his old master inclinations at the time (op. cit., p. 314).
Market-oriented and traditional, some paintings from this era could be mistaken for works from half a century earlier by Charles-François Daubigny or Théodore Rousseau, profoundly influenced by the paintings of the Old Masters. Other works, however, seem to provide a glimpse of the color explosion that would come in 1908, and the formal simplification (elimination of detail, organization of canvas around masses) that would accompany it. Nonetheless, it is impossible to say with certainty that the second category followed on from the first, since Mondrian oscillated between the two approaches for almost ten years. More than anything else, it was an intimate knowledge of the topography, botany and vernacular architecture of the Dutch countryside that enabled Robert Welsh to establish some order in the works from this period.
The Oostzijdse Mill was a subject Mondrian returned to on numerous occasions, painting a total of nineteen compositions (including several watercolors) in which the building forms the primary motif. Here, the relatively broad brushwork and deliberate omission of detail signal the radical change of direction Mondrian’s work was about to take the following year.
(fig. 1) The artist in his Amsterdam atelier, circa 1905.