Theo van Doesburg
Biography of Abstract Painter, Founder of De Stijl, Elementarism.

Pin it

Composition VII (The Three Graces)
(1917) Private Collection.

Paintings by Theo van Doesburg
are also widely available online
in the form of poster art.

Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931)

The influential Dutch painter Theo van Doesburg was also an architect, designer and art theorist. A convert to geometric abstract art and a founding member of the De Stijl design movement, along with Piet Mondrian (1872-1944). In 1918, Van Doesburg was active in Paris and Germany, where he influenced students at the Bauhaus design school and formed connections with abstract and Constructivist artists. He became friends with Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948), and together they made a Dada tour of Holland in 1922. He was a tireless campaigner on behalf of modern art, and, in 1922 at the Congress of International Progressive Artists in Germany, he promoted the Constructivism movement. As well as painting, Van Doesburg was actively involved in architecture, juxtaposing De Stijl art with designs and models. His new aesthetic had a significant impact on contemporary interior design and decorations. He was a prolific theorist on concepts such as Neo-Plasticism and Elementarism, his most influential text being Principles of Neo-Plastic Art, published in 1925. Despite his relatively small output of paintings, his influence was widespread and he is now regarded as one of the most important abstract painters of the early 20th century.

For a guide to the best examples
of abstraction, see:
Abstract Paintings: Top 100.
For a list of the most influential
styles/periods, see:
Abstract Art Movements.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.

For a discussion of the main
aesthetic issues concerning
the creative visual arts, see:
Art Definition, Meaning

For a list of painters like
Theo van Doesburg, see:
Modern Artists.

For a list of the best examples of
Fine Art Painting, by the
world's top artists, see:
Oil Painting.

Early Life and Art Career

Born Christian Emil Marie Kupper, in Utrecht, Holland, he adopted his stepfather's name - Theodorus Doesburg - when he first started painting. His first paintings are signed Theo Doesburg, it was only later that he added the word 'Van' to his signature. Early in his life, Van Doesburg knew he wanted to become an artist, but he never attended a formal academy, he was largely self-taught. In the early part of the century, he financed himself by writing poetry and acting as an art critic, writing about Asiatic and contemporary Western art. In 1908, he had his first exhibition. His first paintings were more post-Impressionist than modernist in style, displaying influences of Van Gogh (1853-1890). His approach changed in 1912 however, when he read a treatise written by Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), in which Kandinsky looks back at his life as a painter. Van Doesburg understood that there was a higher, more spiritual level to art, and that the only was to reach this was through abstraction. Up to this point, Van Doesburg had been more successful at writing about art, than actually producing it. However, he was keen to start a new movement, and began to make the right connections, starting with the Dutch abstract artist Piet Mondrian.


De Stijl

While serving in the army, Van Doesburg came into contact with Mondrian's 20th century paintings, and in these, saw his ideal. He contacted Mondrian, and together, after many discussions, they formed the De Stijl art group. Founded in 1917, it encompasses all Dutch artworks produced within the movement until 1931. Other members soon joined, including the painters Bart van der Leck (1876–1958) and Vilmos Huszar (1884–1960), and the architects J.J.P. Oud (1890–1963), Gerrit Rietveld (1888–1964) and Robert van't Hoff (1887–1979).

They signed a manifesto, advocating pure abstraction, and reducing all forms to the essentials of line and colour. They simplified compositions to basic lines, verticals and horizontals. Their philosophy was known as Neo-Plasticism, or the new plastic art. (See also non-objective art.) Mondrian wrote many essays on the subject, but Van Doesburg was considered the leader. According to Mondrian: 'this new plastic idea will ignore the particulars of appearance, that is to say, natural form and colour. On the contrary, it should find its expression in the abstraction of form and colour, that is to say, in the straight line and the clearly defined primary colour'.

In both painting and furniture, De Stijl artists typically limited themselves to the primary colours, red, yellow and blue, and the three primary values of white, black and grey. Van Doesburg's Arithmetische Compositie (1924), is an example, as well as Neo-Plasticism: Composition VII (The Three Graces, 1917) and Elementarism: Counter-Composition XVI in Dissonances (1925). In 1917 the group also founded the art magazine, De Stijl.

Developments in De Stijl

Around 1921 the group started to have conflicts. Van Doesburg was spending more time associating with Bauhaus and the Russian Constructivists. He became friendly with the Dada collage artist Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948), and the two artists then toured Holland in 1922, promoting the Dada idiom. The same year Van Doesburg wrote the Mecano Journal, with contributions from Jean Arp (1886-1966), Tristan Tzara (1896-1963) and Raoul Hausmann (1886–1971), promoting the Constructivist movement (although Van Doesburg wrote under a pseudonym).

Finally, in 1924, Mondrian broke with the De Stijl group when Van Doesburg abandoned the rigid horizontal/vertical axes propounded by Mondrian and began to argue that the diagonal line was more important. Also, Dadaists I.K. Bonset and Aldo Camini were writing about the group, insisting on their anti-philosophy input, upsetting everyone. It was only after Van Doesburg's death was it revealed that both 'Dadaist's' were in fact Van Doesburg himself, using pseudonyms. As Van Doesburg's role was pivotal within De Stijl, the movement did not survive beyond him, although members did stay in contact. That said, Mondrian continued painting in the style he formed around 1920 and Rietveld continued to design furniture using De Stijl principles.

Diversity of Artistic Output

In 1922, Van Doesburg, along with El Lissitzky (1890-1941) and Kurt Schwitters organised two 'Constructivist international' congresses in Germany. The idea was for Constructivists, Dadaists and De Stijl artists to meet and exchange ideas. Meanwhile, as well as painting, Van Doesburg also became involved in architectural designs and interior designwork. Together with Georges Vantongerloo (1896-1965), he designed the decoration for Cafe Aubette in Strasbourg. About 1924 he started to set his compositions at 45 degrees to the vertical, which showed that he was more concerned with how the painting looked, than the theory behind it. He applied the same principles to his interiors, as can be seen in the Cafe Aubette. Van Doesburg remained active in artistic circles, including the Abstraction-Creation association of sculptors formed just before his death as a counterweight to Andre Breton's Surrealism movement. Other members included Piet Mondrian, Jean Arp, Naum Gabo (1890-1977), Barbara Hepworth (1903-75), Ben Nicholson (1894-1982), Kurt Schwitters, and Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944). Van Doesburg died the same year in Davos, Switzerland. After his death, an abstract movement called Art Concrete evolved out of the remnants of De Stijl and the Futurists, and around the works of Kandinsky and Max Bill (1908-94). It was Van Doesburg in his 1930 Manifesto who had first used the term concrete art.

Tate Modern Exhibition

Between February and May 2010, The Tate Gallery in London held a comprehensive retrospective of Van Doesburg's work, inspiring the Daily Telegraph newspaper to call him 'the coolest cat in 20th-century art'. This was the first major exhibition of Van Doesburg's art in the UK, and included paintings, designs, and text. The exhibition explored his role as promoter of Neo-Plasticism, his Dada personalities and influence of the Bauhaus, his links with international Constructivists, and his creation of the group Art Concrete. The exhibition also included works by Jean Arp, Constantin Brancusi, Piet Mondrian, Kurt Schwitters and Sophie Taeuber-Arp. As well as paintings, it included furniture, stained glass, sculpture, film and other media.

Now regarded as one of the most influential 20th century painters and design theorists from The Netherlands, works by Theo van Doesburg hang in some of the best art museums in the world.

• For more biographies of important modern artists, see: Famous Painters.
• For our main index, see: Homepage.

© All rights reserved.