PRINT Summer 1973

The Birth of de Stijl, Part Two: Bart van der Leck

BART VAN DER LECK (Utrecht 1876–Blaricum 1958) was and is the least known of the de Stijl artists. An aloof man of strong opinions during his long life, Van der Leck kept his distance from the artistic world of his time. He had a few close friends and seldom invited new relationships. Except for his years of study in Amsterdam, he lived outside the main cultural centers of the Netherlands. He almost never contributed to group exhibitions, and his one-man shows have been rare events, three or four scattered over five decades. His work was hardly seen abroad during his lifetime, and a major retrospective that could clarify his stature has not been held outside Holland. Travel did not appeal to Van der Leck, who rarely left his home and studio surroundings. From 1912 until the end of the Second World War, the years of his major period of production, he had a written contract with Mrs. Helene Kröller-Müller (1869–1939), another with her lifelong artistic adviser, the Dutch art critic Hendrik P. Bremmer (1871–1956). As a result an important body of his work, 42 paintings and almost 400 drawings, belongs to the Kröller-Müller State Museum. What remains belongs to private collections and other museums in the Netherlands and to a few museums and private collectors abroad who have recently shown interest in his work. Outside Holland, there is scarcely a trace of Van der Leck in periodicals, books, and other publications of the time. This is partly the result of his own reluctance to respond to requests for information and documentation. For instance, from correspondence found in Van der Leck’s estate, it is clear that Van Tongerloo tried his utmost to have him well represented in the French art revue Abstraction-Création, but the only result of these efforts was a single reproduction in the issue of 1936.

These are the circumstances underlying his regrettable neglect. More important however is the failure to evaluate his contribution. Van der Leck is too often thought of as either an apostle of the de Stijl principles, or as an artist who never really understood them. In fact, his involvement with de Stijl was as an independent, a status he continuously maintained subsequent to his eventful encounter with this group. Like Mondrian, Van der Leck went through a long and laborious process of development. Both artists were over forty when they finally developed their characteristic styles. A comparison of their formative years may clarify what they had in common, what separated them, and how they influenced each other.

Mondrian, born in 1872, grew up in the sleepy provincial Dutch towns of Amersfoort and Winterswijk, where his father was headmaster of a primary school. He had one brother. The family belonged to the Dutch Reformed Church and the cultural climate at home was limited but lettered. He received a good primary and secondary school education. He also had some painting lessons from his father and his uncle Frits Mondrian, a third-rate Hague School landscape painter. Mondrian went through a full, formal art education, passing the State examinations for drawing instructors; he also attended courses at the State Academy of Fine Arts, Amsterdam.

Van der Leck, born in 1876 in Utrecht, was the son of an often unemployed house painter and the fourth of eight children, four of whom died young. (On the day of his birth one of his sisters died.) Van der Leck grew up in the slums of Utrecht and knew poverty all through his childhood. The family, nominally Protestant, tended toward Socialist ideas, and was without any trace of cultural interest. In later years, Van der Leck’s father consistently refused to help him in his struggle to become an artist. According to the law he received a primary school education, but in his 14th year, after leaving school, he was obliged to find a job to earn money. Van der Leck wanted to learn a trade and became an apprentice in a workshop for stained glass windows. To fully understand his development, it is necessary to explain what it meant to work at a stained glass atelier in Utrecht during the last decade of the 19th century.

Since the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church had been repressed in Holland. The original Catholic church buildings were in Protestant hands. With the restoration of the Roman hierarchy in 1853, Catholics began to build new churches all over the country. These churches were Gothic in style, not only because of the general Gothic revival in the late 19th century, but also because parishioners wanted their new buildings of worship to resemble those lost to the Protestants. Utrecht, the see of the archbishop, was the center of the new building activity. Working in a stained glass atelier meant helping to produce neo-Gothic windows. It usually also meant working for German firms. Competence in this field was at its lowest tide in Holland, and most artisans were imported from the Rhineland around Cologne, where the completion of the cathedral had instigated a new development of the arts and crafts. The production of these German workshops was low in quality and poor in taste.

Van der Leck worked for eight years, from 1891 until 1899, in several of these ateliers. Notwithstanding the impoverished craftsmanship and culturally provincial atmosphere, his experience in the workshops was seminal to the development of his style. Becoming an expert technician in stained glass, Van der Leck understood from the beginning that what he was doing amounted to, in his own words, “fabrication and studio nonsense.” He learned to see color as light and to use it plainly and simply with strong contrasts. He became used to seeing forms framed in the heavy contours of lead strips and spatially isolated within the context of an open background. He was instilled with the idea that art was related to architecture, and his eye measured problems of scale and the balance between overall size and detail. During this period of apprenticeship, two encounters influenced and guided his work.

The Dutch painter Antoon Der Kinderen (1859–1925), a contemporary of Jan Toorop, was the only Roman Catholic artist in Holland who since the 1880s had been seriously concerned with a renewal of the arts and crafts. His work tended toward Art Nouveau, but with strong medieval overtones. He became known for his large murals and stained glass windows, although the Catholic church only very reluctantly acknowledged his “modernistic” ideas. In 1894 Der Kinderen designed and executed a large stained glass window for the main building of Utrecht University. It still exists, and looks terribly dull and dated. To Van der Leck it was a revelation, the work of an artist true to himself and to his technique, by a man who actually gave form to an idea. Until 1905, Van der Leck’s own work was haunted by the influence of Der Kinderen. For a decade he explored this decorative style with symbolist and literary overtones, mainly neo-Gothic, but with traces of William Morris, the School of Beuron, and Dutch Art Nouveau as ideals.

In 1893, at one of the glass ateliers, Van der Leck met Piet Klaarhamer (1874–1954), a fellow artisan who for the next 20 years was his closest and most trusted friend. Today, Klaarhamer is remembered only as the furniture designer and architect who deeply influenced Gerrit Rietveld (1888–1965). Klaarhamer was a minor architect, but a man full of ideas. He furnished the transitional solutions relating the Dutch architect H. P. Berlage (1856–1934), much admired by both Van der Leck and Rietveld, to some of the later de Stijl conceptions. Between 1900 and 1910 Klaarhamer worked in Utrecht mainly as a furniture designer. While his work is not as radically simple in construction as Rietveld’s famous early chairs, it is less ornate and more free from historical influences than Berlage’s designs. It also sometimes seems reminiscent of the American Shaker furniture. It is mainly through Klaarhamer’s extensive correspondence with Van der Leck that a fairly coherent survey of Van der Leck’s formative years can be given.

After eight years Van der Leck wanted to stop doing stained glass design to become a real artist, for which he felt an education was needed. Through an incredible maze of official red tape he finally succeeded in obtaining a scholarship for the State School of Arts and Crafts in Amsterdam, where he studied from 1900 until 1904. At the same time he followed the evening courses at the State Academy of Fine Arts. Such an education offered a chance to become an academician, that is, to learn to draw and to paint, to master anatomy and perspective and to gain some knowledge of art history. In the summer of 1904 he finished school with excellent results. Finally free, Van der Leck could now consider himself an artist. It had taken him almost 14 years. He was twenty-eight years old.

During the two following years he tried to get rid of his earlier past. With Klaarhamer he designed a bibliophile edition of The Song of Songs in a sort of modernized, radical Der Kinderen style, and he did some purely symbolist drawings in the Jan Toorop tradition. It is more important, however, to mention that in 1903 and 1904 he had already painted some gouaches with biblical themes in a simplified half-medieval, half-Egyptian manner, but with the use of practically pure and strictly primary colors.

In 1906, Van der Leck’s work showed an apparently sudden and complete change. He emerged as a painter and draftsman in the manner of the so-called Amsterdam Impressionists (Breitner, Isaäc lsraëls), without trace of his earlier Toorop Der Kinderen style, with a series of portraits of old women after models in an Amsterdam old people’s home, some landscapes, and many drawings of Amsterdam street scenes. These portrait paintings and landscapes reveal a direct realism in the presentation of subject matter, a sedate tonality in the use of mostly brown-yellow colors, and a woolly quality of brushstrokes that results in rather soft but dense and clearly defined forms. The drawings in black chalk, sometimes with touches of local color, are more emotional in draftsmanship. They seem to relate to Breitner’s handling of such themes, and even to Van Gogh’s drawings of his Dutch period.

In 1907 Van der Leck decided to live and work in Paris, at least for some years. This was rather a fashionable thing for Dutch artists to do at that time. Van Dongen, Van Rees, and Schelfhout en Kikkert were to establish themselves in Paris. Van der Leck’s contemporaries from the Amsterdam Academy, the painters Jan Sluyters and Leo Gestel, had worked there for short periods. Van der Leck left early in June full of expectations. He was back in Holland within two weeks. An exciting tour of all the cultural sights did nothing to compensate for his shock at the social conditions in Paris. He had seen the Louvre, the Luxembourg, Cluny and Chartres stained glass windows which finally fulfilled his dreams, paintings of all periods and so much more, although nothing of the actual scene, no Impressionists nor Fauves, no Cézanne, Seurat, or Matisse. In a letter to his friend Klaarhamer he mentions his greatest experiences: Chartres, Egyptian art, Fayum portraits, murals by Puvis de Chavannes, the paintings of the Barbizon School, and above all, the human misery he encountered. His choice reflects a summing up of his past, present, and future work. Chartres and Puvis de Chavannes confronted him for the first time with the best quality of the sort of work he had believed in for so many years. The Barbizon School gave him a wider perspective of the style of painting he had adopted in the last few years. In Egyptian art and the Fayum portraits he found indications for what was to follow in the next ten years, without clearly knowing at that time where exactly this would carry him. His compassion for people in need—in a confrontation on a scale unknown in his own country—was a characteristic reaction given his background, personal struggle, and basic intention as an artist. One thought was clearly uppermost: Van der Leck wanted to work for people, to create a new art for a new society.

In 1907 Mondrian had already been an independent artist for more than ten years. He was now a landscape painter of some merit in the tradition of The Hague School, and between 1905 and 1907 his work had shown the first signs of a more personal style: a preference for twilight and evening moods, strong horizontal and vertical accents, and a tendency toward bright, luministic color. Comparison of Mondrian’s and Van der Leck’s landscapes of this period will suggest that their work was developing along parallel lines. In actuality, it was only a chance meeting on crossroads. Within a year they clearly turned in opposite directions. Mondrian continued as a landscape painter in an ever more luminist and Fauvist manner. Van der Leck painted no landscapes after 1907. He became a figure painter with a deep interest in human situations, with nature and architecture merely serving as a backdrop. Still lifes appear as stage properties and seldom receive a major independent representation. This is true for his work until the early ’20s. During the long years of his late period he often returned to still lifes and also to trees and flowers as isolated objects, but never to landscape. Summarizing, it could be said that Mondrian was a landscape painter tending to lyrical “belle peinture,” Van der Leck a figure painter in search of epic monumentality.

In 1906 Van der Leck became engaged to Bertha Teerink, a school teacher at the small village of Glanerbrug. He made frequent short trips to visit her, and during the year 1908 he went to live and work in Glanerbrug for ten or more months. The village is situated on the German border east of Enschede in the province of Overijssel and not too far from Oele where Mondrian also sometimes worked. There is no evidence that the two artists knew of each other’s existence at that time. In and around Glanerbrug and Enschede the textile industry was in full development. The village showed a peculiar mixture of a traditionally agricultural local population and a partly industrial proletariat. In this industrial environment with a folkloristic touch, Van der Leck found the subject matter that would incite his first steps toward his principle of “unity in diversity,” as he defined it. Sketchy drawings of village types and laborers of the textile mills in a manner reminiscent of Van Gogh’s Dutch period, alternate with very precise elaborately realistic versions of the same themes rendered in a sort of Nabi cloisonné (related to his experience in stained glass), sometimes enlivened by bright touches of isolated local color.

Color was never a problem for Van der Leck. He knew from as early as 1903–4 what he wanted to do with color when he could find the right form to contain it. Throughout his attempts to clarify his formal approach he consistently shows an undogmatic, theoretically naive use of stark, plain color in an off-key primary range of values.

Van der Leck’s ideal of a new art for a new society stimulated his search for a new image of man, a simple, universally valid and understandable identity that would stress the unity of mankind. He found the first indications for such a solution in the theme of laborers returning home from the factory. After many intermediate transformations, in 1910 his system of comprehensive reduction of incidental formal elements, catalyzed by the similarities in appearance and behavior of the tex- tile workers, brought Van der Leck to a first major result: the large painting Leaving the Factory (now in the Boymans-van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam). A comparison of this painting with Léger’s Nudes in a Forest (Kröller-Müller State Museum), also from 1910, shows that both artists have similar intentions. Leger had the advantage of the example of Cézanne and Picasso, Van der Leck had to find his own solution, but both worked toward “une imagerie populaire moderne,” a new art for the people.

From April, 1909 through June, 1915, Van der Leck lived and worked in and around Amersfoort, the town where Mondrian was born. He was attracted to these surroundings by the hussar regiment in garrison at the nearby village of Soesterberg. The disciplined uniformity of attire and action and the diminished individuality of soldiers gave him further pointers for a generalization of the human image. By a slow process, constantly retaking older themes and at the same time adding new ones, Van der Leck came to a formalized, monumental realism. From 1912 onward, the background of his paintings is white, suggesting a wall. The figures gradually became freestanding and arranged in one plane according to the Egyptian principle of “Seidliche Staffelung” (Schaefer). The paintings are often done in a frescolike technique of distemper on asbestos cement. In simple friezes, he concentrated anecdotal themes mostly taken from the world of Glanerbrug and Amersfoort: beggars and blind men, soldiers and laborers, women talking or going to the market, an accident, a fire, people at a station, with a car, or with a bicycle. Van der Leck had a passion for machinery. His color is now bright, clear, plain, and almost primary.

Early in 1914 the Kröllers commissioned Van der Leck to do a large stained glass window for the offices of Mr. Kröller’s firm of Müller and Company in The Hague. Since the window was to give an idea of the company’s activities in shipping and mining, Van der Leck was invited to see its coal mines in Southern Spain and Algeria. He made the trip from April through June, 1914, and one cannot forget that in April of the same year Klee, Macke, and Moilliet made their well-known “Tunis-Reise.” Van der Leck came back with over a hundred drawings and watercolors that served not only as the basis for the window, which he produced later in 1914, but which also provided him with fresh subject matter in the years to follow.

In March, 1916, Van der Leck finished one of the most important paintings in his whole oeuvre, a summation of more than ten years of an independent, almost autonomous development. The large painting The Storm in the Kröller-Müller State Museum presents itself as a mural. The traditional, romantic Hague School theme (see: Jozef Israëls) of Scheveningen fisherwomen on the beach watching their husbands struggling on the high seas is painted in a daringly abstracted simplification of form, color, and content. The sweeping dividing line from the lower left to the upper right corner suggests beach and dunes as well as the turbulence of the storm. The women, belonging to the land, and the ship on the sea, each have their own separate domain set against an embanked area of neutral white wall space. The color is plain, primary with black and white, and flat. The preliminary studies and the painting itself evidently refer to a direct interpretation of a personally seen and assimilated reality. From April, 1916 onward The Storm and a few other paintings painted in the same style were on permanent public view at Mrs. Kröller’s private museum in The Hague.

Because of his work for the Kröllers, Van der Leck moved to and lived in The Hague until April 13, 1916. When he had finished his work for the Kröllers which included besides the window, a poster, mosaics, typographical designs, and color schemes for several interiors of the Kröller houses and offices, he moved to Laren (east of Amsterdam) where he remained until May, 1919. From 1919 until his death in 1958, he lived and worked in a house built after his own design in the village of Blaricum near Laren.

After The Storm Van der Leck changed his style and started to number his paintings, naming them “compositions” without a further descriptive title.1 He did four “compositions” during the rest of 1916, eight in 1917, and at least five in 1918. With the exception of Composition No. 1, 1916 (a portrait of his eldest daughter, Noortje, born in 1913), they all look fully abstract on first sight. But with the possible exception of one or two paintings of 1918, the subject matter is always deduced from reality. Through a laborious process of intermediate studies, often using material from his earlier realist period as a starting point, he arrived at an abstracted version composed of small, unconnected, rectangular fields of primary color against a white background. Several times he did two versions of the same theme, one with rather solid, heavy blocks of color and another with a more linear effect. In these years his subject matter most often derived from the drawings and watercolors made during his trip to Spain and Algeria in 1914.

The Composition No. 1, (Noortje), as a small scale first tryout of a new method, must have made it clear to Van der Leck that it is almost impossible to abstract the human face to such an extent that no residue of an identity is left. All further “compositions” are based on groups of figures or even, very unusual for him, on landscapes. The major work of his new 1916 series of paintings, Composition No. 4 (the so-called Mine Tryptique, now at the Municipal Museum in The Hague), is based in the middle part on a small watercolor of a mine entrance in Algeria, and in the two side panels on watercolors of miners inside the mine. These two panels are the only paintings he made with a black background, the blacks symbolizing darkness in the mine and coal.

In a letter dated December 11, 1916, Mrs. Kröller acknowledged receipt of several new Van der Leck paintings. She neither understood nor appreciated his new manner. She wondered if Van der Leck was not over-influenced by Mondrian and felt that the overtly abstract quality was an impoverishment compared to his earlier achievement. Finally, she asked Van der Leck to send her the studies for these paintings, so that she could see how he arrived at his new solutions. Mrs. Kröller’s reaction brings us close to the essence of what happened to Van der Leck in the crucial year 1916.

Bremmer knew Van der Leck and Mondrian before they knew each other, as did the Dutch collector Van Assendelft. Both might have told Van der Leck to go and see Mondrian when he went to live in Laren. Letters from Mondrian to Van Assendelft and Bremmer indicate that a first meeting must have taken place shortly after Van der Leck’s arrival in Laren, late in April or early in May, 1916. Before he went to Laren, Van der Leck must have known Mondrian’s painting Pier and Ocean, 1915 (already shown in Mrs. Kröller’s private museum) and he could have seen the Composition: 1916 bought by Van Assendelft and exhibited early in 1916. In Laren he undoubtedly found Mondrian working on the Composition in Line, not finished until 1917.

This could explain the seemingly abrupt change of manner in Van der Leck’s work from The Storm to the Composition No. 1 (Noortje). The horizontal-vertical linearity of Mondrian’s work could have incited him to try out a more radical reduction of his still basically realistic form stylization as a logical continuation of his already nominally loose planes of pure primary color on a flat white surface. In addition, Mondrian’s formal themes, derived from landscapes and city environments, must have appeared to Van der Leck as a more sophisticated way of abstracting reality.

The series of works that ended with The Storm remained in The Hague when Van der Leck moved to Laren. Mondrian probably saw Van der Leck first working on paintings that had already been influenced by his own slightly earlier work. The impactmust have been the greater for it. Mondrian undoubtedly saw in Van der Leck’s work a further solution to his own problems. The change from the first to the second version of the Composition in Line could be the result of this confrontation, for Mondrian’s production in 1917 certainly owes much to Van der Leck. At this point, both artists seem to have found new solutions through seeing each other’s work. Mondrian came to planes of united, almost primary color, but could not cope with the spatial problem of loose planes on a flat surface. Van der Leck never left that principle, the essence of his drive toward the mural and architecture. Mondrian’s radical and more philosophically-based method of abstraction, however, alienated Van der Leck from his “imagerie populaire moderne.”

From correspondence between Van der Leck and Van Doesburg it becomes clear that the latter saw The Storm and earlier pictures in Mrs. Kröller’s museum sometime during autumn, 1916. On December 31, 1916 he writes Van der Leck to inform him that he revisited the Kröller Museum together with Vilmos Huszar to see his newest paintings. He is full of admiration particularly for the Mine Tryptique and Van Doesburg announced he wanted to write a book about Van der Leck. Van Doesburg’s own work cannot have been of any consequence to Van der Leck. Further research is required, however, to clarify the influence of Van der Leck on Van Doesburg. Van der Leck joined de Stijl and wrote an article on “The Place of Modern Painting in Architecture” for the first issue of its magazine. His short apodictical statement presents his principle: the ambivalent combination of the natural (the real) “destructed“ into spatial flatness with the intention to dissolve the separation between painting and architecture, or even more basic between painting and life.

The other de Stijl artists, and especially Van Does-burg, wondered about this statement with its declared implication of a principal relation to reality not only in writing but also in actual practice. In several letters Mondrian and Van Doesburg expressed their doubt that Van der Leck really belonged to the group. The same doubt existed in Van der Leck’s mind. The notes and comments left by Van der Leck’s wife indicate that all through the Laren years he felt very nervous about what he was doing. He finally refused to sign the de Stijl manifesto and in 1918, after a last series of “compositions,” he produced the painting Man on Horseback almost as proof of his refound freedom. By 1920 he had broken all ties with de Stijl. Van der Leck had definitely returned to a measure of direct realism in his manner of abstraction, which he would further elaborate through long years of patient and unwavering work.

Rudolf W. Oxenaar

Editor’s Note: For information about and further illustrations of the work of this painter see EXH. CAT. Bart van der Leck (Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum, 1959) and the catalogues of the Kröller-Müller State Museum: Painting 19th and 20th Century (1962, 2nd edition) and Painting of the Rijksmuseum (1969).



1. Editor’s note: On the model of Mondrian who used us titles since 1912?