Theo van Doesburg - Living the Avant-Garde: The Triton Collection Foundation, Evening Sale Part I New York Tuesday, November 14, 2023 | Phillips
  • Theo van Doesburg was a leading founder of the de Stijl movement in the Netherlands and beyond, as both an artist and the publisher of the movement’s periodical of the same name, which was first issued one year prior to the creation of Composition (Seated Figure), 1918. Van Doesburg’s de Stijl brought his radical ideas and those of his peers, including Piet Mondrian and Bart van der Leck, to an international audience. A rare example from the initial groundbreaking moments of the movement, Composition (Seated Figure) demonstrates that van Doesburg’s comprehensive understanding of de Stijl was not limited to his literary involvement—he was on the vanguard of its painterly execution.


    “Strip nature of all its forms, and you will have style left.”
    —Theo van Doesburg


    Beginning with his correspondence with Mondrian in 1915, van Doesburg played a critical role in theorizing de Stijl. Instigated by the destruction of World War I, drawing on the utopian ethos of the Arts and Crafts Movement, and anticipating the desires of the Bauhaus, adherents to de Stijl believed in a social need to unify all aspects of life under one aesthetic. For van Doesburg, Mondrian, and their peers, this aesthetic was geometric and grid-based, with a formal reduction of color and representation to the barest essentials. In contrast to what they saw as the “individual domination in every state” that led to World War I, van Doesburg and his peers imagined de Stijl as a collective effort; as a result, the artists were close collaborators in the early years of de Stijl, with the innovations of one artist invigorating the whole group.i By stripping form down to pure style, van Doesburg and Mondrian believed their art could reach a new level of universal, spiritual resonance.


    Piet Mondrian, Composition with Grid No. 1, 1918. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Image: © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston / Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Pierre Schlumberger / Bridgeman Images 

    Composition (Seated Figure) crystallizes van Doesburg’s interpretation of de Stijl in 1917-1918. Though the painting ostensibly includes a figure, such a figure has been completely abstracted, into a series of overlapping rectangles in blue, yellow, green, grey, black, and white. The inclusion of grey and green distinguishes van Doesburg’s work from that of Mondrian; the latter dropped such colors from his palette in the 1920s, but van Doesburg retains a subtlety of planes through the use of grey and green, reminiscent of Cubist portraits of the early 1910s.ii In this sense, Composition (Seated Figure) holds onto a depth of pictorial space, synthesizing what van Doesburg saw as the most important innovations of his avant-garde peers into one canvas.


    Georges Braque, Woman with a Mandolin, 1910. Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. Image: Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza / Scala / Art Resource, NY, Artwork: Artwork: © 2023 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris 

    Careful study of the surface of Composition (Seated Figure) reveals that the artist began by painting the black outlines, and then filling in rectangles of pure color. This approach aligns with Mondrian’s centering of the vertical grid in the composition of paintings, which van Doesburg advocated as an element of de Stijl until the mid-1920s.iii Van Doesburg’s outlines in Composition (Seated Figure) are as adamant and self-assured as Mondrian’s, reflecting the core de Stijl value of working together towards a collective aesthetic at this time.


    Van Doesburg’s order of operations also speaks to the influence of his concurrent artistic project—the design of stained glass windows. In line with the principles of de Stijl, van Doesburg believed that the success of the movement lay in its integration into all aspects of life, interior design included. Such an open-minded and omnivorous approach to artmaking would ensure the longevity of the movement. Van Doesburg’s personal approach to de Stijl, exemplified in Composition (Seated Figure), had a direct influence on the founding teachers of the Bauhaus, and its lines trace further into the clean and streamlined aesthetics of the 21st century, a true aesthetic revolution.



    i Theo van Doesburg (1918), “De Stijl: Manifesto I,” translated in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, eds., Art in Theory: 1900-2000, Malden, 2003, p. 281.

    ii George Heard Hamilton, The Pelican History of Art: Painting and Sculpture in Europe, 1880-1940, Penguin, New York, 1967, p. 322.

    iii Ibid., p. 324.

    • Description

      Please see main sale page for guarantee notice

    • Provenance

      P. Tideman, Amsterdam (probably acquired in 1918 directly from the artist)
      Mak van Waay, Amsterdam, May 1, 1973, lot 37
      Monet (J.P. Smid), Amsterdam (acquired at the above sale)
      Private Collection (by descent from the above)
      Galerie Noortman, Maastricht (acquired by 2003)
      Private Collection, New York (acquired by 2004)
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2009

    • Exhibited

      Miami, Lowe Art Museum, University of Miami, Less is More: The Influence of the Bauhaus on American Art, February 7–March 10, 1974, no. 9, p. 12
      Cologne, Kunsthandel Kiefisch, Die Styl und sein Kreis, 1974
      Utrecht, Central Museum (on long term loan, 1975–1999)
      Laren, Singer Museum, Presentatie. Tentoonstelling georganiseerd door de Nederlandsche Kunstkoopersbond, May 1976, no. 64, p. 33 (illustrated)
      Stuttgart, Württembergischer Kunstverein (p. 182, illustrated); Utrecht, Centraal Museum (no. 50, pp. 166-167, 307; illustrated, p. 167); Bonn, Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Van Gogh bis Cobra: Holländische Malerei 1880-1950, November 23, 1980–June 10, 1981
      Holland, Michigan, Hope College, De Pree Art Center & Gallery, Dutch Art and Modern Life: 1882-1982, October 2–November 13, 1982, no. 24, pp. 74-75 (illustrated, p. 75)
      Amsterdam, Institute of Contemporary Art, The Antagonistic Link: Joaquín Torres-García, Theo van Doesburg, May 31–August 23, 1992, fig. 50, p. 111 (illustrated)
      Paris, Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris, La beauté exacte: Art Pays-Bas XXe Siècle, de van Gogh à Mondrian, March 25–July 17, 1994, no. 4, p. 289
      The Hague, Gemeentenmuseum (on long term loan, 2011–2017)
      The Hague, Gemeentemuseum, Mondriaan en De Stijl: een definitieve plek in Nederland, September 16, 2011–January 16, 2012, fig. 43, pp. 66-67 (illustrated, p. 67; caption inverted with fig. 44)
      Rotterdam, Kunsthal, Avant-gardes 1870 to the present: The Collection of the Triton Foundation, October 7, 2012–January 20, 2013, pp. 305, 544 (illustrated)
      Brussels, Centre for Fine Arts (BOZAR), Theo van Doesburg: A New Expression of Life, Art, and Technology, February 26–May 29, 2016, no. 9, p. 41 (illustrated)

    • Literature

      Sergio Polano, Theo van Doesburg: Scitti di arte e di architettura, Rome, 1979, no. PITT 120, p. 527 (illustrated)
      Carel Blotkamp, Daubigny, Van Doesburg, Daniëls en 88 andere hoogtepunten uit de collectie moderne kunst van het Centraal Museum, Utrecht, 1987, no. 38, pp. 90-91 (illustrated, p. 91)
      Els Hoek, ed., Theo van Doesburg: oeuvre catalogue, Utrecht, 2000, no. 582, pp. 227-228 (illustrated, p. 227)
      Eddy Schavemaker, Noortman: One Hundred Master Paintings, Maastricht, 2003, pp. 262-264 (illustrated, p. 262; detail illustrated, p. 264)



Composition (Seated Figure)

signed with the artist's monogram and dated "1918" lower right
oil on canvas, in artist's frame
21 7/8 x 15 7/8 in. (55.5 x 40.5 cm)
Painted in 1918.

Full Cataloguing

$900,000 - 1,200,000 

Sold for $1,016,000

Contact Specialist

Carolyn Kolberg
Associate Specialist, Head of Sale
+1 212 940 1206

Living the Avant-Garde: The Triton Collection Foundation, Evening Sale Part I

New York Auction 14 November 2023