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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Piet Mondrian produced a number of impressive drawings across his career but his work within this discipline has rarely received the attention that it deserves. He would use combination of pastel, crayon, charcoal and standard pencils to achieve a variety of results.

The artist would sketch study pieces from time to time in preparation for later paintings, but also on other occasions produce standalone drawings which could survive by themselves. The artwork displayed on this page was titled Three Chysanthemums and was produced around 1899-1900 using a combination of crayon and pastel. Mondrian enjoyed sketching still life scenes and found this an enjoyable way of spending a few hours creatively. He spoke about how he became interested in studying the structure of flowers in particular and so he would use drawing as a means to really focus on that part of their appearance. Mondrian also seemed to enjoy looking at things intimately, but without the possibility of them moving suddently, and so carefully crafted still life drawings was a good way for him to work. He would face very different challenges when sketching outside but this was an important skill to master for someone who also adored the Dutch landscape. He featured it many times within the early part of his career and would sometimes take an artist pad with him which could then be filled with a variety of sketches and thoughts about his local environment.

In recent years a number of these drawings have re-surfaced, having been missing or undocumented for many years. The catalogue raisonne of 1998 included a large number of his drawings but several more have turned up since then. In most cases it is simply the case that an artist's drawings have not been afforded enough attention or care, meaning they would sometimes be dispersed without any documentation at the time, making it impossible to track them until the owners then come forward. This would normally occur at auction time, leaving experts to debate the authenticity of each one. Many have not survived their judgement, such is the high prevalence of fake art in the world, but many have been appended onto Mondrian's career and added new light as to his achievements. Those confidently attributed to his hand can regularly achieve sale prices of between $50-100,000, depending on the amount of detail within each drawing, as well as any potential connection to more famous paintings. Farmyard with Sheep & Female Nude: Bust Portrait (A Double-Sided Work), for example, achieved a sale price of $81,900 as recently as 2021.

That particular piece featured work on both sides, verso and recto, and the dimensions of the paper used suggest that this was likely part of a skecthpad originally, before being taken on and given away separately. Interesingly, there was a landscape on one side and then a simple portrait sketch on the other, one in charcoal and crayon, and the other in pencil. This would suggest that Mondrian would use his sketchpads for a great variety of different needs, often combining them together. He would not have considered these items that would sell for such large sums many years later, and this discipline was much more about fun, experimentation and planning. You can also read more about the different mediums that he used across his career within our biography. One must also remember that some of the genres in which he painted, much practice was required. Portraiture is a challenging discipline which even the great masters would have to continually work on in order to really be comfortable in. Portraits can also be obvious ways to gift art to others, and a personal gesture that most would really appreciate.

The artist is known to have produced drawings rapidly for exhibitions up to the turn of the century and many portraits would be involved within this. It was perhaps the earliest success that he achieved as an artist and was able to sell many of these sketches to a mainstream audience. They may not have given us any indication of his later artistic taste or direction, but were none the less impressively done and at least got him a start in the art industry. If we track his career across the 20th century you will find that drawing remained an important part of his workflow, with landscape sketches then appearing many times across the next two decades. Several highly polished items have been uncovered as studies for later paintings, including one of a windmill which became highly respected itself. He would also take his sketchbooks with him during several trips to the unique environment of Zeeland, where he would be inspired to capture all manner of items such as the stunning dunes as well as a memorable lighthouse. Some studies could then be used for larger paintings once he had returned to his studio.

Whilst his drawings have been discussed individually, as well as being featured collectively as part of his larger catalogue raisonne, there have not been any major publications solely on his achievements within this discipline, as yet. There is actually plenty of scope for a discussion such as this, because of the variety of drawings that he created, both in terms of content, but also in how he made use of different mediums, including charcoal, pencil, pastel and crayon. He would have come across the impressionists many times whilst learning about art history and they were particularly talented draughtsmen which might have inspired some of his landscape drawings. He also became passionate about spending more time within the Dutch countryside and so the ease of drawing enabled him to journey out into remote areas without having to plan to carry large amounts of artistic materials with him. That then made it possible for him to go deeper into the countryside as well, plus also work faster in some of these ever-changing environments. Somewhere as remote and open as Zeeland would provide conditions that would have changed even before his paintings were finished, making sketching a better option in most cases.