Piet Mondrian (1872-1944)
Property of the Estate of Phyllis Cerf Wagner (Mrs. Bennett Cerf)
Piet Mondrian (1872-1944)

Red Chrysanthemum on Blue Background

Piet Mondrian (1872-1944)
Red Chrysanthemum on Blue Background
signed 'P. MONDRIAN.' (lower right)
oil on canvas
16½ x 12 in. (41.9 x 30.5 cm.)
Painted circa 1909-1910
Jon Nicholas Streep, Amsterdam and New York (1965).
E.V. Thaw & Co., Inc., New York.
Stephen Hahn Gallery, New York.
Acquired from the above by the late owner, January 1966.
J.B. Neet, "Mondrian's 'Chrysanthemum,'" The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art, September 1987, p. 298.
R.P. Welsh, Piet Mondrian, Catalogue Raisonné of the Naturalistic Works (until early 1911), New York, 1998, vol. I, pp. 403-404, no. A609 (illustrated, p. 403).
M. Bax, Complete Mondrian, London, 2001, p. 438 (illustrated).
Santa Barbara Museum of Art; Dallas Museum of Fine Arts and Washington, D.C., The Washington Gallery of Modern Art, Piet Mondrian, January-June 1965, no. 32 (Santa Barbara), no. 35 (Dallas) and no. 24 (Washington D.C.) (illustrated; titled Chrysanthemum).

Lot Essay

Between early 1908 and late 1911, Mondrian lived at a Sarphatipark address in Amsterdam. But unlike the Gein River landscapes he produced during roughly the same period, his flower studies are "locale neutral," as Robert P. Welsh points out (op. cit., p. 395). Indeed, almost all of Mondrian's sunflowers, foxtail lilies, magnolias and anemones, as well as his chrysanthemums, are "detached from their natural environment," enabling them to rise "to the level of independent signs" (H. Janssen and J.M. Joosten, Mondrian, 1892-1914: The Path to Abstraction, exh. cat., Musée d'Orsay, Paris, 2002, p. 134). In this way, despite a certain level of naturalistic representation, flower paintings such as the present work significantly approach abstraction.

The meaning of flowers to Mondrian during this period can be linked to his new interest in theosophy, a belief system that recognizes a universal body of truth as the basis of all religions. This spiritual philosophy was popular with artists, and painters such as Wassily Kandinsky and Marsden Hartley, as well as writers like Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot, who were similarly influenced. One year after hearing a series of lectures by the German theosophist Rudolf Steiner in March of 1908, Mondrian became an official member of the Dutch Theosophical Society. In this context, Mondrian's flowers can be linked to the theosophist notion that humans are reincarnated through mineral, plant and animal forms before reaching their present stage.

The centrality of floral motifs in the aesthetic of Art Nouveau also greatly impacted Mondrian. He was close friends with the older artist Jan Toorop, whose blend of Dutch Symbolism and Art Nouveau featured the sinuous flora characteristic of that decorative arts movement. The two artists spent the latter part of the summer of 1908 together at the seaside resort of Domburg, in Zeeland. In his 1893 drawing Three Brides, Toorop positions the chrysanthemum as the focal flower. Compared to the swath of virginal lilies which surround the central bride, a single chrysanthemum dominates the foreground. Toorop's subject of the three brides may have had special resonance for Mondrian, who between 1909 and 1911 was linked romantically to three different women, one of whom, Greta Haybroek, briefly became his fiancée. The artist's fascination with flowers at this moment was undoubtedly linked to this uncharacteristic spate of amorous activity.

Welsh comments on the rarity of the present work: "the only small representation of a single chrysanthemum in an oil medium and in a style which could date from circa 1908-1909 is Red Chrysanthemum on a Blue Background" (ibid., p. 477). He also points out that "the number of chrysanthemum representations among Mondrian's known surviving flower pieces overpowers those of other species," and ascribes to chrysanthemums a "near-monopoly status" within Mondrian's production at the turn of the century (op. cit., p. 399). Beyond the type of flower he represented, Mondrian depicted blooms both robust and wilting, to either symbolize life's energy or suggest death. His drooping sunflowers, for example, memorialize the death of fellow Dutchman Vincent van Gogh through that artist's most iconic flower. The blossom of the present work, constrastingly, could not be more upright, erect, alive.

The bold, almost primary colors of the present work also attest to this vitality. As Janssen and Joosten observe, Mondrian's transition from "natural color" to "pure color" resulted in "a palette of full, vibrant and intense colors that would become characteristic of the period until 1910," and of which the present work is a consummate example (op. cit., p. 128).

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