Composition With Yellow and Blue
Piet Mondrian found his way to abstraction through his exploration of landscape. Only as from the early 1920s did the artist concentrate on a wholly non-objective pictorial language, which confined itself to arrangements of vertical and horizontal black lines with planes in white and the three primary colors. Mondrian himself called this style Neoplasticism. With regard to its stylistic classification, Composition With Yellow and Blue is closely linked with the theoretical principles of Neoplasticism, which Mondrian published in 1920.
In 1932 Piet Mondrian was living in Paris. Composition With Yellow and Blue must have been produced in his studio in the Rue du Départ, where from 1921 to 1936 he lived, worked and received regular visits from friends and collectors. Between 1929 and 1932, Mondrian created a series of paintings that bear a close likeness to Composition With Yellow and Blue, all of them featuring large yellow rectangles and a small blue field, this latter intended to enhance the luminosity of the yellow. The works of these years are probably most typical of Mondrian’s idea of Neoplasticism.
The painting process as a continuous experiment
The square painting Composition With Yellow and Blue presents itself as a very balanced composition of primary colors, rectangular white fields and clear lines. This might lead us to assume that Mondrian has worked from the outset in a structured and planned manner.
Scientific investigation tells a different story, however, and reveal that Piet Mondrian experimented during the painting process to find what he considered a perfect harmony. The biggest surprises were yielded by microscopic and chemical analyses, which shed a whole new light on Piet Mondrian’s working technique.
Pictures of the work in different imaging techniques give different information: visible light, grazing light, transmitted light, UV fluorescence, IR incident light, IR transmitted light, X-ray
Piet Mondrian often developed similar compositional layouts and executed these in variations. In Composition With Yellow and Blue, he implemented a concept for several canvases and experimented with minimal changes to the compositional elements.
Between 1929 and 1932 he completed three paintings almost identical in terms of their composition, size, and original frame of wood strips.
Composition No. II, 52 × 52 cm, 1929, Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam (B215)
Composition No. II With Yellow and Blue, 52 × 52 cm, 1931, private collection (B228)
Composition With Yellow and Blue, 55 × 55 cm, 1932, Fondation Beyeler Collection (B234) (cropped views, without original frames)
Digital image overlay from the tree painting (B215, B228, B234)
When the three works are superimposed in a digital image-processing program, it becomes clear that, while similar in terms of palette, they differ in details of their lay-out. Piet Mondrian experimented with the positioning, size, and relationship of the compositional elements to each other, and in so doing created a different and unique painting each time. Rather than simply “copy" or repeat his composition, he explored how subtle changes could result in a completely different visual effect.
In search of the perfect colour
How did the artist pursue this experimentation in practice? One answer lies in his exploration of colour variations. Although Mondrian is traditionally said to have employed only pure primary colours in his Neoplasticist paintings, he nevertheless – and this is a little-known fact – extensively modified his primary colours.
To our great surprise, during scientific analyses of minute samples of original paint in cross-sections, it emerged that several separate layers of paint had been applied one on top of the other in all the colour planes, each layer having a subtly different tonality.
If we look, for example, at the cross-section sample X9 taken from the bottom right-hand corner of the yellow rectangle, where it borders a black line, we see that Mondrian painted this field no fewer than six times in subtly different shades of yellow. Although he used the classic cadmium yellow as his main pigment, he added varying amounts of white, and even other pigments, before arriving at the “right” yellow that best harmonized with the composition and evidently met with Mondrian’s satisfaction.
The artist’s painting process becomes even clearer when the same cross-section is examined under ultraviolet light, distinguishing the different fluorescence of the individual layers:
- (1, 2, 3) Mondrian used a yellow paint of almost identical composition in his first three layers, as evidenced by their very similar orange fluorescence.
- (5) For the next layer he used a different pigment composition, bluish under UV light.
- (6, 7) In the final two layers, Piet Mondrian once again varied and refined the color shade by mixing cadmium yellow with white oil paint. As analyses confirm, this latter was identical to the paint he used for the white rectangles.
- (4) A layer of bone black, lastly, can also be detected in the cross-section, as the paint sample was taken close to the border with a black line. Between the first (1, 2 and 3) and second (5) phases of painting, it is probable that Mondrian varied this black line, too, using a thin oil paint either to broaden the line or to slightly shift it’s position.
Cross-section sample visible light
Cross-section sample UV illumination
Sophisticated painting technique
The same cross-section sample was also carefully studied using a scanning electron microscope (SEM), and here another interesting discovery was made. (The images typically produced with an SEM show the surface structure of a sample, have a large depth of field, and provide information about the elements in the materials.) Mondrian is known to have finely sanded his paint surfaces before applying another coat, and it seems likely that he has done this here. The upper three yellow paint layers (5, 6 and 7) namely contain small “islands” of pigment particles that do not correspond to the components of the paint layer surrounding them, and whose material composition is different. It is likely that these are abrasive particles that were not completely wiped away and became mixed into the following layer.
Enlarged detail of the SEM image, showing the “islands” of pigment particles
It is also interesting to look at how Mondrian painted the other color fields. Since the number of paint layers visible with the naked eye, even under magnification, is very few, minute samples were also taken from a blue and a white color field, in both cases at places where these bordered a black line.
Here, too, the findings yielded surprising results. The artist applied seven different layers of paint in the blue rectangle alone, and three layers of white in the middle white rectangle along the lower edge of the picture.
In this macro photo, only two paint layers are visible to the naked eye
Cross-section (X2) in visible light
The results of the investigations show that Mondrian worked on the painting over a longer period of time, varying the color scheme by applying new layers of paint in the classic oil painting technique. He left the oil paint to dry thoroughly after each new layer. This might also explain the problems, often mentioned in his correspondence, with clients, galleries and dealers unhappy about the long time it took him to complete his paintings. Our results confirm that the artist implemented his ideas in a painstaking and concentrated manner, in his endeavor to create a perfect and universal painting. Piet Mondrian repeatedly emphasized that the process of painting came first, and that theory was built on the painting process, not vice versa (Hans Janssen, Piet Mondrian. Een nieuwe kunst voor een ongekend leven. Een Biografie, Amsterdam 2016, p. 41).
Place on B234 from where sample X9 was taken
(Cross-sections are microscopic samples of the entire paint structure from top to bottom, which are then embedded in resin and examined under high magnification. They allow us to see the individual paint layers in the order in which the artist applied them.)
Taking the sample
If we look at the painting Composition With Yellow and Blue and concentrate on the white color fields, the white square lower center (outlined in red in the illustration below) gives the impression of being somewhat “warmer” in tone and of differing slightly from the rest. Pigment analyses of the uppermost paint layers, however, confirm identical components of zinc white in all the white color fields. It is likely that here Mondrian exploited the optical phenomenas associated with placing complementary colors close to each other, familiar from color theory, particularly given his active interest and exploration of contemporary theories of color and composition.
In the surface structure of Composition With Yellow and Blue we can also recognize a typical feature of Mondrian’s paintings: the precisely parallel brushstrokes. In most of the color fields, the brushstroke is predominantly vertical. In the central white square and the blue field, however, it runs horizontally. This different surface texture likely provides a further explanation for our perception of a “color shift” in the white square.
The frame as an integral part of the painting
The significance of the original frame as a key component of Piet Mondrian’s work has already been discussed in the context of the painting Eucalyptus. The way in which the frame, along with the choice of colours, influences the concept of the picture can be impressively demonstrated in the example of Composition With Yellow and Blue.
The wooden frame construction on which the canvas is mounted, consisting of strips of wood nailed onto a larger subframe, is original. This is not the case with the paint coat, as analyses show. As part of restoration measures in the past, the frame has been repainted several times. It was originally a shade of white consisting of two thin layers of oil paint. These two layers – the first a sort of primer, followed by a coat of white paint – correspond exactly to the first two layers of oil paint in a sample taken from one of the white rectangles in the picture. In terms of composition, color and materials, the artist thus attached equal weight to frame and painting.
The original painting of the frame of Composition With Yellow and Blue can be reconstructed on the basis of the well-preserved original paint coats on similar works from the same period, e.g. Composition With Double Line and Blue (1935). If we compare detail views of these two works, the marked differences in tonality, surface texture and gloss between the original and the overpainted frame become clear (fig. ##). After careful evaluation and testing, therefore, it may be appropriate at some point in the future to remove such overpainting.
Outlined in red: the “warmer” white square
Macro photo revealing part of the frame’s original white paint coat
Detail views of the overpainted frame of Composition With Yellow and Blue (1932, left)
and the original paint coat on the frame of Composition With Double Line and Blue (1935, right)
Discover more works
Composition No. VI
In Composition No. VI, Mondrian hardly takes up the representational appearance of the apartment building, but rather the structural and colour characteristics as motivic inspiration.
Get an overview of the seven Mondrian works and the Piet Mondrian Conservation Project.
TABLEAU NO. I
Mondrian altered the painting three times and each time also considered it completed with signature and date.