By 1920 the abstract grid had become the foundation of Mondriaan's pictorial style, and in that year the artist wrote the pamphlet Neo-Plasticisme to promulgate the goals of the Dutch De Stijl movement. Mondriaan found it difficult, however, to interest collectors of his earlier work in his most recent efforts. An exhibition of recent paintings at Léonce Rosenberg's Galerie de l'Effort Moderne in 1923 had been a failure, and during this period Mondriaan was desperately in need of sales. Fortunately, Mondriaan's Dutch dealer Simon Maris still had an eager market for the painter's early naturalistic works in Holland, especially his studies of flowers. Mondriaan resumed painting flowers in the spring of 1922, mainly roses, chrysanthemums, lilies and amaryllis, which he could sell for 30 or 40 florins a piece.
Mondriaan's treatment in the flower studies is naturalistic, but in their pale, ghostly tonalities, as well as their nebulous and timeless settings, these flowers possess Platonic and idealistic qualities that retain authentic overtones of the Symbolist milieu in which the artist first emerged as a modernist twenty years earlier. Their appearance and symbolism also stem from Mondriaan's involvement in Theosophy, a movement founded in the late 19th century by the American Helena Blavatsky, who advocated the synthesis of the world's great religions through the study of esoteric texts and the occult. Mondriaan began to study Theosophy in 1899 and joined the Dutch chapter of the society in 1909. The rose, the "queen of flowers," was sacred to Venus in antiquity, and became the floral symbol of the Virgin Mary. Thus, in its worldly guise, the rose represented the sensuality of the garden of Eros, and in its spiritual aspect, the white, mystic rose was the emblem of the divine paradise of Dante. The rose embodied the transcendent form of spiritual completeness and perfection, utopian ideals that Mondriaan incorporated in his Neo-Plasticist agenda for painting. Two decades later in New York, Mondriaan described one of his abstract grid paintings, Composition, 1933, to his dealer Sidney Janis as being "like a rose." (quoted in E.A. Carmean, Jr., "Mondriaan Flowers," Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth Calendar, May-June 1991, p. 1).
Mondriaan most often depicted the flowers in his gouaches singly; the rose appears in pairs, as two flowers growing from the same branch, in about half of the compositions in which he painted this subject. This perhaps suggests the pure union of two souls. Indeed, more than other depictions of flowers, the coupled roses appear to express the poignancy of romantic longing and love, evoking the idea of "love from afar" extolled by the troubadours in medieval courtly tradition. Robert Kenner has written; "If his abstractions asserted an unshakable faith in the triumph of clarity, order and world peace, Mondriaan's flowers were more private expressions of joy and sadness, tenderness and pain. There is a melancholic intimacy to these isolated blooms as they wilt, droop, or dissolve into a watercolour mist" (in "Mondrian's Secret Garden," Art & Antiques, March 1991, p. 134).