Piet Mondrian
Tableau No. 2/Composition No. VII, 1913
Oil on canvas
104.4 x 113.6 cm
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection 49.1228
© 2016 Mondrian/Holtzman Trust c/o HCR International Virginia

“For in nature the surface of things is beautiful but its imitation is lifeless. The objects give us everything, but their depiction gives us nothing” [1]

For more than a decade after graduating from art school, Piet Mondrian (b. 1872, Amersfoort, The Netherlands; d. 1944, New York City) created drawings and paintings that focused on landscapes and nature. In 1911 Mondrian visited an Amsterdam exhibition of Cubist paintings by Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso and was inspired to go to Paris, where he began to develop an independent abstract style. Seeking to refine the rhythms of what he saw, Mondrian began drawing the area in which he lived. After sustained work and many adjustments, these initial compositions evolved into flat planes of interlocking rectangles that no longer showed objects. Although Mondrian’s sources exist in the natural world, his images are reduced to the essentials.

Tableau No. 2/Composition No. VII, painted a year after his arrival in 1912, exemplifies Mondrian’s new approach. Mondrian broke down his subject—in this case a tree—into interlocking black lines and planes of color. He also limited his palette to close-valued ochre and gray tones that recall Cubist canvases.

Mondrian went beyond the Parisian Cubists’ degree of abstraction. His subjects are less recognizable, in part because he avoided any suggestion of volume, and, unlike the Cubists, who rooted their compositions at the bottom of the canvas in order to suggest a figure subject to gravity, Mondrian’s scaffolding fades at the painting’s edges. In works such as Composition 8, based on studies of Parisian building facades, Mondrian went even further in his refusal of illusionism and the representation of volume.

Throughout his life, Mondrian continued to move toward greater abstraction. His goal was to discern an underlying structure in the world by means of the fewest, clearest elements. He sought to remove all clutter, paring away everything inessential[2], eventually even rejecting diagonal lines. Like many pioneers of abstraction, Mondrian’s impetus was largely spiritual. He aimed to distill the real world to its pure essence, to represent the dichotomies of the universe in eternal tension. To achieve this he focused on stability, universality, and spirituality—through balancing horizontal and vertical strokes.


Show: Tableau No. 2/Composition No. VII, 1913

Describe this painting as carefully as possible. Be sure to include colors, lines, shapes, composition, and paint application in your description.

This painting was derived from Mondrian’s study of a tree. Are there qualities in this painting that seem to reference the original subject, or have all traces of its source been eliminated? Explain your response.


Tableau No. 2/Composition No. VII was based on Mondrian’s study of a tree. Composition 8 (Compositie 8) was inspired by Parisian architecture. Mondrian was known to have created many naturalistic drawings and paintings, including more than a hundred pictures of flowers. Reflecting years later on his attraction to the subject, he wrote, “I enjoyed painting flowers, not bouquets, but a single flower at a time, in order that I might better express its plastic structure.”

Begin your own work by drawing a subject that inspires you. Like Mondrian, it may be a flower, tree, or building, or something else that attracts you. Then work towards simplifying your subject until you feel you have captured its essence. It may not still look like the subject you began with, but it will retain something of its original structure and its meaning to you.

Over his lifetime, Mondrian evolved from a Dutch landscape painter into an artist of international influence. Research the evolution of his work from its focus on nature, to his late work that explored rhythm, tension, and balance. Which works do you find most interesting? Why?

Mondrian cultivated simplicity in both his life and his paintings. He lived alone in what has been described as “cell-like” severity, deliberately reducing both art and life to the minimum [3]. By 1918 Mondrian’s subject matter consisted of vertical and horizontal rectangles and lines, their colors limited to black, white, gray, and the primaries red, yellow, and blue. Working with these limited means Mondrian created some of the most grand and austere paintings of the 20th century [4]. Despite limiting his choices, Mondrian was able to innovate and experiment enormously within his chosen parameters. Although we live in a world that touts infinite choice as a positive, can you think of other instances where limiting choices is beneficial? Explain.

1. John Milner, Mondrian, Abbeville Press, 1992, p. 117.

2. Ibíd., p. 7.

3. Ibíd., p. 7.

4. Susanne Deicher, Piet Mondrian: 1872–1944. Cologne: Taschen, 1999, inside cover.