This fall, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), presents an exhibition of works by Piet Mondrian (1872–1944), celebrating a transformational gift that elevates the MFA to one of the leading institutions outside of the Netherlands for the study and display of the artist’s early work. On view from November 11, 2023 through April 28, 2024, Mondrian: Foundations is the first monographic exhibition of Mondrian’s work at the MFA, presenting 11 paintings and 17 works on paper that span his entire career, with an emphasis on his early years, when he worked in a lesser known realistic style.
Around 1920, Mondrian began to paint some of the most famous and recognizable artworks of the last century. These abstract paintings, characterized by white backgrounds, spare black lines and blocks of primary color, have become ubiquitous in today’s popular culture and are regarded as the heart of Mondrian’s achievement. But the path to these works—Mondrian’s artistic roots in Holland in the late 19th century and subsequent evolution of his work—are far less known. His early paintings capture the characteristic Dutch landscape, filled with canals and windmills, fields and farmhouses, flowers and trees. When seen side by side with Mondrian’s later, non-representational paintings, they reveal an artist who constantly reinvented himself as he absorbed new influences on his journey toward abstraction.
A majority of the works in Mondrian: Foundations are drawn from a gift to the MFA from Maria and Conrad Janis by and through the Janis Living Trust. In addition to 34 paintings, drawings and watercolors by Mondrian—24 of which are on view in the exhibition—the gift included more than 200 works that significantly reshape the Museum’s holdings of early and mid-20th century art from Europe and the U.S. Highlights include a group of five sculptures by Jean Arp that enable the MFA to show the full chronological range of his work; works on paper by Fernand Léger, Alberto Giacometti, Paul Klee, Pablo Picasso and Franz Kline; the Museum’s first work by Anna Mary Moses (“Grandma Moses”); and a group of seven works by the self-taught artist Morris Hirshfield.
The late Conrad Janis (1928–2022) was a jazz trombonist and actor who starred in film and television during Hollywood’s “Golden Age” in the 1950s and 1960s. He inherited a major art collection from his father, renowned art dealer and writer Sidney Janis. In 2009, he gifted Composition with Blue, Yellow and Red—an important 1927 work by Mondrian that exemplifies his trademark style of pure geometries—to the MFA, making it the first painting by the artist to enter the Museum’s collection.
Composition with Blue, Yellow and Red is the most recent work by Mondrian on view in the exhibition, which also features his earliest known painting, made when he was just 15 years old. This work, The Large Ponds in the Hague Forest (1887), is on loan to the MFA from Rose Marie and Eijk van Otterloo, longtime supporters of the Museum who are among the founders of the Center for Netherlandish Art, an innovative research center for the study and appreciation of Dutch and Flemish art. A landmark gift of 113 paintings from the 17th century, made in 2017 by the Van Otterloos and Susan and Matthew Weatherbie, elevated the MFA’s holdings to one of the premier collections of Dutch art in the world. The addition of modern works by Mondrian from the Janis collection complements the MFA’s holdings of 17th-century Dutch art, as well as its excellent collection of Dutch 19th- and 20th-century works on paper.
“Mondrian: Foundations” is supported by the Benjamin A. Trustman and Julia M. Trustman Fund.