Piet Mondrian (1872-1944)
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Piet Mondrian (1872-1944)

Chrysanthemum

Details
Piet Mondrian (1872-1944)
Chrysanthemum
oil on canvas
19 7/8 x 13 7/8 in. (50.5 x 35.2 cm.)
Provenance
The artist's estate, until 1958.
Harry Holtzman, New York.
Sidney Janis Gallery, New York (no. 8229), 1958-1962.
James H. & Lilian B. Clark, Dallas, by whom acquired from the above in 1962; estate sale, Christie’s, New York, 19 November 1998, lot 338.
Private collection, United States, by whom acquired at the above sale.
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
Literature
C. von Wiegand, ‘The Meaning of Mondrian’, in Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 2, no. 8, fall 1943, p. 64.
M. Seuphor, Piet Mondrian, Life and Work, New York, 1956, no. 164, p. 416 (illustrated fig. 130, p. 368; dated ‘circa 1906’). 
A. Mongan, ‘Mondrian’s Flowers’, in Miscellanea I.Q. van Regteren Altena, Amsterdam, 1969, p. 229 (illustrated fig. 4, p. 396; dated ‘1906-1908’). 
M.G. Ottolenghi, L’opera completa di Mondrian, Milan, 1974, no. 156, p. 96 (dated ‘1907’). 
D. Shapiro, Mondrian: Flowers, New York, 1991, p. 56 (illustrated; dated ‘circa 1906-1908’). 
J. Joosten, Piet Mondrian: Catalogue Raisonné of the Work of 1911-1944, vol. II, New York, 1998, no. C47, p. 477 (illustrated).
Exhibited
New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, New Acquisitions, October - November 1959, no. 30 (dated ‘1909’). 
New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, XXth Century Artists, October - November 1960, no. 45 (illustrated; dated ‘circa 1908’). 
New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, Paintings by Mondrian: Early & Late Work in Progress, January - February 1962, no. 7 (dated ‘1908’). 
Dallas, Museum for Contemporary Arts, Dallas Collects 20th Century Art, August - September 1962. 
New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, Paintings, Drawings and Watercolors by Piet Mondrian, November 1963, no. 13 (illustrated, dated ‘1908’). 
New York, Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, Important European Paintings from Texas Private Collections, November - December 1964, no. 29 (illustrated). 
Santa Barbara, Museum of Art, Piet Mondrian, January - February 1965, no. 22 (illustrated; dated ‘1908’); this exhibition later travelled to Dallas, Museum of Fine Arts, March - April 1965; and Washington D.C., Gallery of Modern Art, May - June 1965. 
Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, Dallas Collects: Impressionist and Early Modern Masters, January - February 1978, no. 66 (illustrated; dated ‘circa 1908’). 
Dallas, Museum of Fine Arts, Impressionist and Modern Masters in Dallas: Monet to Mondrian, September - October 1989, no. 57 (dated ‘circa 1908’). 
New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, and Fort Worth, Modern Museum, Mondrian Flowers in American Collections, March - July 1991, no. 6 (dated ‘1920s’).
Special notice

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Lot Essay

Flowers were just there, quietly waiting to be painted by him, in his own way. He could understand flowers better than he did landscapes, but they were for him harder to paint. Flowers were passive and defenceless, doomed to die. To him flowers meant more than what he was to himself; passing through time, receding in time, taking with them part of himself.
(A.P. van den Briel, quoted in J. Neet, ‘Mondrian’s “Chrysanthemum”’,  in The Bulletin of the Cleveland ?Museum of Art, vol. 74, no. 7, September 1987, p. 282)

Hailed as one of the most pioneering artists in the development of non-representational geometric abstraction, at different points throughout almost the entirety of his career Piet Mondrian also painted a significant number of naturalistic flower paintings. Indeed, in his oeuvre, the flower paintings outnumber his geometric grid paintings. From as early as 1898 and continuing until 1938, Mondrian returned at varying intervals to the poetic and representational depiction of solitary flowers, creating a large group of still-lifes that forms a fascinating visual counterpart to his works of pure abstraction; an illumination of the antithetical paths that constitute the artist’s oeuvre. 

Against a glowing golden background, in Chrysanthemum, a single stem of this intricate bloom – one of Mondrian’s favourite and most frequently depicted flowers – is rendered with exquisite and delicate detail. Thrusting upwards from the lower corner of the canvas the thin, elegant stem of the chrysanthemum erupts into a bountiful blossom that fills and dominates the composition. Painted in subtle tones of blue and white, each of the thin, curling petals is finely outlined, creating the sense of voluminous mass evoked by the multitude of paper-thin petals of the blossom. Executed in oil, the present work is a particularly rare example of Mondrian’s floral studies as the artist most frequently used watercolour, gouache, charcoal or pencil to render these works. Regarded in contrast to the artist’s bold, declamatory and depersonalised geometric abstractions, a painting such as Chrysanthemum stands as a poignant, highly individualised and timeless artistic expression, encapsulating the artist’s friend, Albert Pieter van den Briel’s belief that the flower paintings ‘reflect much of Mondrian’s inner life, as an individual and as a painter’ (A.P. van den Briel, quoted in J. Neet, ‘Mondrian’s “Chrysanthemum”’, in The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art, vol. 74, no. 7, September 1987, p. 288).  

At various phases of his career Mondrian returned to these delicate, finely rendered floral still-lifes, making them particularly difficult to accurately date. In the closing years of the Nineteenth Century, at the very beginning of his life as an artist, Mondrian executed a series of flower paintings and drawings that resemble botanical studies in their scrupulous attention to detail. Taking solitary stems, the artist focused almost entirely on the chrysanthemum, depicting them frontally and with fine detail. A few years later, from around 1906, flowers appeared once more within the artist’s oeuvre, and it is from this period that Michel Seuphor in Piet Mondrian, Life and Work (New York, 1956) and Maria Grazia Ottolenghi in Lopera completa di Mondrian (Milan, 1974) date Chrysanthemum (circa 1906 and 1907 respectively). By contrast, Joop Joosten in the most recent Catalogue Raisonné of the artist (New York, 1998), does not give the present work a specific date, but instead places it within a group of ‘late’ naturalistic works that Mondrian painted alongside his radical geometric abstractions. In the early 1920s, while living in Paris, Mondrian painted a large number of floral still-lifes, which were very commercial and ensured him an income. However Joosten states that even this dating is equivocal: ‘It is not at all impossible that the authors of this Catalogue Raisonné have incorrectly dated a number of these flower pieces as ‘late’. They would be glad to pass the honour of dating them more precisely to those who come after them’ (J. Joosten, Piet Mondrian: Catalogue Raisonné of the Work of 1911-1944, vol. II, New York, 1998, p. 473). 

That these still-lifes remained an important motif throughout Mondrian’s career is a reflection of the complex and often contradictory relationship that the artist maintained with nature. Moving from an impressionist and subsequently symbolist depiction of the landscape, from around 1908 Mondrian began increasingly to abstract the world around him in his art, intensively scrutinising the forms of nature – perhaps most notably trees and the sea – and conveying them on the canvas with a bold and highly reduced simplicity. As Mondrian stated in 1941, ‘I never painted… romantically; but from the very beginning, I was always a realist… I enjoyed painting flowers, not bouquets, but a single flower at a time, in order that I might better express its plastic structure’ (D. Schapiro, Mondrian: Flowers, New York, 1991, p. 14). Intense observation of nature formed the basis of his earliest phases of abstraction until the mid 1910s when Mondrian, in the midst of the development of his neo-plastic theories, renounced the natural world, eliminating any reference to it in his abstract work: he reportedly declared in 1915, ‘Yes, all in all, nature is a damned wretched affair. I can hardly stand it’ (Mondrian, quoted in Piet Mondrian 1872 1944, exh. cat., New York, 1971, p. 25). Conversely, however, he never completely abandoned naturalism, as his flower paintings testify. Indeed, these works demonstrate Mondrian’s lifelong devotion to an intense observation of the world around him, as David Schapiro has written: ‘Throughout his life, Mondrian betrays an obsession with the natural, first in his attention toward the real and then in his manic sacrifice of it in pursuit of the essential’ (Schapiro, op. cit., p. 25). 

While Mondrian’s treatment of flowers in works such as Chrysanthemum is naturalistic, the inherent transience of the solitary, ephemeral blooms that the artist depicted in an array of soft, ethereal hues and in various states of life demonstrates his involvement and interest in Symbolism and Theosophy, a spiritual movement that incorporated teaching from a number of religions, as well as science, mythology and cosmology. Flower symbolism played an important part in Theosophical thought and these plant forms were seen to encapsulate this central concept of evolution: the eternal life cycle of birth, growth, death, decay and regeneration. Having joined the Dutch branch of the Theosophical Society in 1909, Mondrian’s allusions to Theosophy can be seen in many of his floral paintings, which depict the blooms in a state of decay or at the peak of their flowering. In Chrysanthemum the bloom is pictured at the very height of its blossoming, with some of the petals just beginning to wilt and hang down. For Mondrian, flowers not only provided an opportunity for the scrupulous observation of form, but with their symbolic iconography, also served as a means for the artist to explore a range of deeper spiritual concerns. ‘I too find flowers beautiful in their exterior beauty’, the artist once said, ‘yet there ?is hidden within a deeper beauty’ (Mondrian, quoted in Schapiro, ibid., p. 17).

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