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de Stijl

de Stijl

Author: Ian McConnell
This lesson will explore the movement known as "de Stijl."
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An overview of the de Stijl movement.

Video Transcription

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Hello, I'd like to welcome you to this episode of Exploring Art History with Ian. My name is Ian McConnell and today's lesson is about de Stijl. As you're watching the video, feel free to pause, move forward, or rewind as often as you feel is necessary. And as soon you're ready, we can begin.

Today's objectives are listed below. By the end of the lesson today you'll be able to identify and define today's key terms, describe some of the history behind the development of the de Stijl movement, and identify examples of de Stijl art, architecture, and design.

Key terms, as always, are listed in yellow throughout the lesson. First key term is de Stijl, a utopian 20th century Dutch art movement characterized by qualities of simplicity, function, primary colors, and rectangular forms. Primary color, red, blue, or yellow. Rectangular plane, four-sided flat surfaces consisting of four 90 degree angles.

Neoplasticism, also called "the style", or de Stijl, characterized by qualities planes, primary colors, and vertical and horizontal lines. Asymmetrical, an art compositional technique where unequal parts are balanced through the use of various sizes, shapes, colors, and placements.

Big idea for today, is that de Stijl was created as a universal style that anyone could use in the arts, architecture, and all aspects of life. Essentially, all-encompassing. And the art, architecture, and design that we'll see today dates from between 1917 and 1942. We'll be traveling to Amsterdam in the Netherlands, where Theo van Doesburg and Piet Mondiran first met around 1915. And to Utrecht, Amsterdam, where the Schroder House is located.

So in the spirit of simplification, like de Stijl, let's summarize the basic principles of the de Stijl movement, or "the style," as it's known. De Stijl, in a nutshell, is the reduction of all forms to rectilinear shapes and lines, and all color to primary colors plus black and white.

So the multi-talented artist Theo van Doesburg is considered the founder of de Stijl, which is Dutch for "the style," although he isn't the only member. As I mentioned before, he met Piet Mondrian in Amsterdam around 1915 and they hit it off and worked together to refine the aesthetic. Theo van Doesburg remained the most active and vocal member of the group, and wrote a manifesto-- manifestos seemed to be very popular at the time-- in which he outlined the philosophy behind the movement, emphasizing the idea of a universal style that everyone all around the world could use, and a style that suppressed all natural form and all representation.

Here's a great example of the suppression of natural form. This painting called Composition VIII, or The Cow, is the de Stijl artist's interpretation of an actual cow. Now I know what you're thinking. I've seen a few cows in my day, the ones that were still together looked nothing like this.

Let's take a look at the transition from natural to abstract using van Doesburg's own study drawings for this actual painting. So what's interesting is in how van Doesburg was essentially working in reverse, starting with the naturalistic image and breaking it down to its fundamental geometric shapes. So let's begin with a cow, simply enough. In the next image, he breaks the cow's form into several connected geometric primitives, or rectangles, triangles and the hint of one or two squares in there. It looks like a cow.

Now in the next image he's taking in the further step of reducing it even further, and adding in solid blocks of basic color. Even though it's more simplified, you can still see the essence of cow, which is another good band name, by the way. Finally, with the final composition, van Doesburg has a disconnected the primitives so they essentially float next to one another. And while the representation may be lost as a result, you can at least see how he arrived at his conclusion, or really, at the beginning.

Piet Mondrian's paintings, for me, are quintessentially de Stijl in its purest form, or at least in terms of adhering to the aesthetics the best, or the closest. Now this is something he arrived at over many years. After meeting van Doesburg around 1915 he returned to Paris, France, where he was exposed to Cubism. And although identifying with the work, he felt that Cubism didn't go far enough in reducing its forms to pure abstraction, like you see here. He worked for many years in Paris, gradually refining his visual style until he arrived at something like this. Thick black straight lines on a white background with bold blocks of evenly, or carefully, positioned color.

De Stijl was not just an artistic style, but was present in architecture and design as well, although not to the extent of movements like the Arts and Crafts, for example. Now Gerrit Rietveld emerged as the most important figure in these areas, and took the visual aesthetic of de Stijl to its three-dimensional conclusion. Now one of his most iconic designs is this chair, which recalls Mondrian's paintings, but in three dimensions. It's a reduction of the chair's basic elements and rectangular planes and solids, and painted in only four colors.

The Schroder House in Utrecht, Netherlands is the only architectural example in which the final building is constructed entirely based on the de Stijl design principles. That means from beginning to end, it's completely de Stijl. The entire structure is composed of intersecting perpendicular and parallel, or rectilinear, lines and planes. The interior, which is not pictured, is not designed in the traditional sense with separate rooms, but rather as a sort of dynamic open area that could be partitioned in numerous ways with the exception of the restroom, thankfully, which was in its own area. The principles carried down to even the smallest elements, such as the window hinges, which allow them to be open only to 90 degrees, or a right angle.

Rietveld opened a studio on the lower level and eventually moved in with Mrs. Truus Schroder upon the passing of his wife until his own death in 1965. Now Mrs. Truus Schroder was the person that commissioned the project. And she actually lived in the house until her own passing in 1985, roughly 60 years after the house was designed.

So that brings us to the end of this lesson. Let's take a look at our objectives again to see if we met them. Now that you've seen the lesson, are you able to identify and define today's key terms? Can you describe some of the history behind the development of the de Stijl movement? And can you identify examples of de Stijl art, architecture, and design?

And once again, the big idea for today is that de Stijl was created as a universal style that anyone could use in the arts, architecture, and all aspects of life. Essentially all-encompassing.

And that's it. Thank you very much for joining me today. I'll see you next time.

Notes on "de Stijl"

Key Terms

de Stijl

A utopian 20th-century Dutch art movement characterized by qualities of simplicity, function, primary colors and rectangular forms.

Primary Color

Red, blue, or yellow.

Rectangular Planes

Four-sided flat surfaces, consisting of four 90 degree angles.


Also called 'the style' or de Stijl; characterized by qualities of planes, primary colors, and vertical and horizontal lines.


In art, a compositional technique where unequal parts are balanced through the use of various sizes, shapes, colors, and placements.


van Doesburg, The Cow; Public Domain: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Theo_van_doesburg_de_koe.jpg  Piet Mondrian, Composition with Yellow, Blue and Red, Fair Use According to Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Mondrian_CompRYB.jpg Schroeder House; Public Domain: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:RietveldSchroederhuis.jpg Red & Blue Chair; Creative Commons: http://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bestand:Rietveld_chair_1.JPG; "Piet Mondrian, Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow, Fair Use According to Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Mondrian_Composition_II_in_Red,_Blue,_and_Yellow.jpg; Image of Cow Sketch Public Domain http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/theo-van-doesburg/composition-the-cow; Image of Cow Sketch 2 Public Domain http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/theo-van-doesburg/composition-the-cow-1; Image of Cow Painting Public Domain http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/theo-van-doesburg/study-for-composition-viii-the-cow-1