is taken from the Christies catalogue for a sale of van der Leck's work held in
2001. See Note 1 below for details of the source and
Bart van der Leck
by Cees Hilhorst
When he died at his painter's easel two weeks before his 82nd birthday, after a
career spanning over half a century, Bart van der Leek left an oeuvre of no more
than approximately 175 paintings. He may not have been a prolific artist, but he
worked diligently all his life. However, he lacked confidence, and neither his
self-doubt nor the integrity from which it stemmed were ever to leave him. He
found it difficult to declare a painting finished and then to put it aside. As a
result - particularly in his later life - many of his paintings remained in the
studio for years, awaiting his seal of approval. Yet there are other reasons why
he left a comparatively small oeuvre. For besides painting, Van der Leek was
always interested in various types of applied art. He tried his hand at
typography, stained-glass work, interior design and ceramics, but – contrary to
what he himself aimed at - owes his reputation mainly to painting.
van der Leek (1876-1958) was born in Utrecht, a medium-sized provincial capital,
whose university tempered the stifling lethargy that took hold of the
Netherlands in the 19th century.
1 While at school he found little inspiration
from the working-class atmosphere of his parental home, where poverty reigned
and where numerous births alternated with almost as many deaths. He left school
at the age of 14 - which was not particularly young at the time - and found a
position as an apprentice at one of Utrecht's stained-glass workshops, where he
learnt the techniques of this ancient craft. At 16, he became friends with Piet
Klaarhamer (1874-1954), the future architect and teacher of Gerrit Rietveld
(1886-1964). Though Klaarhamer was almost the same age as Van der Leek, the
fortune of his birth and education had given him a considerable intellectual
advantage and he remained Van der Leek's guide and mentor for the next 25 years.
He inspired his friend's spiritual and intellectual development and under his
influence Van der Leek started reading prose and even poetry, took up French,
and acquired a lasting interest in theology and philosophy. His exposure to new
ideas led him away from the Christian doctrine of his youth, which he exchanged
for a lifelong affinity with left-wing progressive political movements and some
of the mystical ideologies that were gaining ground in the Netherlands around
the turn of the century. His interest in the spiritual side of life appears to
have aroused his artistic ambitions, for he soon joined the local artists'
association Kunstliefde (meaning 'love of art'), where he studied life drawing.
In 1900, Van der Leek enrolled at the Rijksschool voor Kunstnijverheid (the
National Applied Arts Academy) in Amsterdam, and a year later he started
attending evening drawing classes at Amsterdam's Rijksacademie voor Beeldende
Kunsten (National Fine Arts Academy). 2
The emergence of the Arts & Crafts movement in Britain around that time and its
impact on the art centres of Europe inspired a revival of the applied arts in
the Netherlands. However, Van der Leek's interest in the applied arts must have
been based largely on political and social considerations. His aim was to bring
art down from its ivory tower, incorporate it in daily life and make it
accessible to the public at large. His efforts to abolish the distinction
between fine and applied arts shaped his entire career. He even reached a point
where his paintings were not only works of art in their own right, but could
also be incorporated into a wall or wall panelling, and could even serve as
patterns for murals, tapestries or glazed tiles.
1904, after completing both courses in Amsterdam, Van der Leek embarked on his
real career. At first, he led an unsettled existence, drifting from one place to
another in the Netherlands. He kept himself occupied by designing illustrations
for books and other ephemera (see lot 181) as well as furniture upholstery,
usually in collaboration with Klaarhamer. He also sketched from nature and in
the working class neighbourhoods that had sprung up in several cities (see lot
192). He was unable to afford expensive materials such as oil paints and canvas,
so that most of his work from this period consists of pastels and chalk drawings
on paper. In 1906 at one of his lodgings, he met his future wife, the teacher
Bertha Teerink (1883-1959), who proved to be another important intellectual
sounding board in his life. Soon afterwards he met H.P. Bremmer (1871-1956), a
mediocre Painter who soon found his true vocation - and greater success-
teaching art to a growing coterie of well-to-do admirers. Bremmer was later to
emerge as a valuable Patron of the arts and one of the most influential Dutch
art critics of his day. The two men formed a close and lasting friendship, from
which both benefited. 3 Bremmer
must also have been a source of intellectual inspiration to Van der Leek. He
certainly had an appreciable influence on his artistic development, although
without tangible evidence it is difficult to assess the extent of his impact.
nature, Van der Leek had 'Apollonian' rather than 'Dionysian' leanings, and his
training in the decorative arts would only have reinforced this tendency. His
artistic development around 1905 and for the following 15 years stands as a
textbook example of a very gradual, step-by-step evolution, in which each
successive stage was discernible, logical and inevitable. The guiding principle
in this process throughout the years was a striving towards simplification,
generalisation and synthesis. Van der Leek literally 'abstracted' various
aspects of his paintings and representations to make the content more universal.
He applied to his canvases the rules of wall painting, one of the few types of
art with a traditionally public function, by avoiding three-dimensional effects.
He emphasised the flatness of the canvas by not using overlapping figures or
strong diagonals. He simplified the attitudes of his figures by representing
them from the front or en face or in the 'Egyptian' manner (see lot 219), and
stripped the 'models' of their individuality by rendering them without personal
distinctive features (fig.1). More often than not, they were rendered in
and poses. Van der Leek lifted his scenes from their normal context by depicting
them against a white background (fig.2). To enable his paintings to be
incorporated into a wall -thereby ignoring the distinction between painting and
architecture and uniting the two completely – he abandoned the customary support
of canvas on a wooden stretcher and took to working on sheets of asbestos. He
emphasised the flatness of the image by avoiding shadow effects and applying his
colours evenly. He gave these colour fields distinct outlines and where possible
'straightened' the contours. He reduced any remaining resemblance between
representation and reality by letting parts of the scene 'float' over the white
background, as if immune to gravity.
This was the stage Van der Leek had reached when, in early 1914, Bremmer - who
for a few years had been providing him with a steady income in exchange for his
paintings - introduced him to the collector Helene Kroller-Muller (1869-1939)
and through her to Wm. H. Miiller & Co., one of the largest trading companies in
the Netherlands. Van der Leek was engaged as their 'artist-in-residence', the
idea being that he would team up with the famous architect H.P. Berlage
(1856-1934), who at the time also worked exclusively for Muller & Co. His
first assignment was to design a stained-glass window for the company's head
office in The Hague. He was sent to Algeria and southern Spain for two and a
half months to prepare himself for the project. The impressions he gained during
that time were to have a marked impact on his uncommissioned work for several
years. Shortly afterwards, he was invited to design a poster for the Batavier
Line, which ran a passenger and cargo service between Rotterdam and London.
These two assignments resulted in works that even today are considered
milestones in the history of Dutch applied arts.
For practical reasons, Van der Leek and his family - he married in 1912 - moved
to The Hague, where he continued to paint in his spare time. Here, perhaps
inspired by more frequent contact with Bremmer,he found the direction that was
to lead to his most conspicuous contribution to the development of the visual
arts. In mid-1915, he must have come to the conclusion that having 'abstracted'
content, form and composition, he should start doing the same with colour to
achieve further synthesis in his work. He therefore started to reduce the
natural colours to their principal primary components and from then on painted
exclusively in the unmixed colours red, yellow and blue and the non-colours
black and white (and a decade later, slightly inconsistently, in grey). His
first paintings in this unusual palette were The Storm and Stevedores, both
completed in 1916.
In the meantime, nothing had come of the envisaged collaboration between Van der
Leek and Berlage, mainly because of the smouldering rivalry between these two
strong, perhaps stubborn, personalities. As a rule, Berlage did not confine
himself to architecture, but designed total works of art, leaving his own
distinctive mark on the interiors of his buildings. Hence, there was little for
Van der Leek to do in the way of either painting or wall painting, or advising
on colour. Commissions for monumental works of art for the company were not
forthcoming and Van der Leek was spending more and more of his time on rather
trivial work for Helene Kroller-Muller personally (see lot 220). In the spring
of 1916, he decided that enough was enough, and asked to be released from his
contract. The terms were amended and he again found himself in a similar
position as he had been with Bremmer: he was to give all his paintings to Helene
Kroller-Miiller in exchange for a steady income. The arrangement was to be
reviewed every year. Van der Leek and his family immediately moved to Laren, a
small village near Amsterdam, which had gained a reputation as an artists'
colony and as a good - and inexpensive - place to live.
In Laren Van der Leek met Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), who had been visiting his
family in the Netherlands when the First World War broke out and was unable to
return to Paris. Following completely different paths, both artists had reached
a similar point in the development of their theories of art, aimed at a rigorous
synthesis of the visible world. They formed a firm friendship from which both
were to benefit, albeit at different times and on different levels. Mondrian
must have introduced Van der Leek to 'Christosopher' Mathieu Schoenmaekers
(1875-1944), whose two publications, Het Nieuwe Wereldbeeld (The New World
Image) of 1915 and Beginselen der Beeldende Wiskunde (Principles of Plastic
Mathematics), which appeared in 1916, had a substantial impact on them.
Schoenmaekers influenced not only their painting, but also the terminology Van
der Leek subsequently employed to describe his work: 'The modern [artist]
consistently explores the fundamentals of existential being to achieve
transparency in spatial mathematical unity [author's italics] and hence discover
the true reality of all humanity, i.e. the representation of physical transience
in spatial cosmic reality.
Through Mondrian, or perhaps Vilmos Huszar (1884-1960), whom he had met among
Bremmer's circle of acquaintances in The Hague, Van der Leek came into contact
with Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931) in late 1916 and as a result became involved
in the founding of the avant-garde journal De Stijl (1917-1931/32).
8 However, his association with
the journal was short-lived. Through differences of opinion on art - and the
personal quarrels that ensued - his relationship with Van Doesburg cooled so
fast that Van der Leek must have withdrawn from the project around the time the
first issue appeared. He did not even renew his subscription for the second
year. All in all, his contribution to the journal was limited to two articles,
in which he analysed the nature and functions of painting and architecture,
examined their roles in relation to one another, and advocated a more
influential role for painters vis-a-vis the all-powerful architect. Even so, his
impact on De StijI should not be underestimated, though his name never appeared
again. Van der Leek's main contribution to the journal - and to 20th century art
history, though less striking - was that he introduced the ideal of integrating
painting and architecture to the artists associated with De Stijl and thus laid
one of the cornerstones for the ideology to which the journal owes its
Mondrian's influence - and in line with Schoenmaekers's philosophy - Van der
Leek had adapted his painting idiom. In his studies he continued to render his
subjects in blocks of even, primary colours against a white background, but he
would subsequently reduce the images by applying more and more white over the
edges, 'painting them away', until all that remained were geometrical shapes set
against a white background. Like Mondrian, he stopped giving his works titles.
He only signed, dated and - for some time - numbered them on the back (see lot
202). They look rather like tangram puzzles, with the fundamental difference
that Van der Leek's blocks of colour were never allowed to touch, let alone
overlap, one another (fig.3). All his compositions incorporate an imaginary
passepartout. The white backgrounds against which the images are set merge into
a fairly wide white frame. In some cases, he painted a series of unconnected
squares or rectangles on the borders of the scene, which - joined up in the
observer's mind - actually did form an inner frame. Never was this frame to be
closed - he even preferred not to have black lines printed around illustrations
of his work - because he felt it would disconnect the painting from its
surroundings. According to Van der Leek's rather metaphysical theory, 'open', or
unconnected, shapes set against a white background gave the work itself an
'openness' and allowed its surroundings to keep influencing it. In other words,
that 'openness' prevented the painting from becoming stultified and ultimately
futile. Initially it was possible, with a little determination, to identify the
original objects, but they grew increasingly indistinct in the course of 1917,
as Van der Leek became more focused on the structure of his compositions. He
distributed his blocks of colour over the picture plane according to an
imaginary scheme of horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines, with rotation
playing an increasing role (see lot 202) at the cost
of anatomical components and proportions of the model. Van der Leek's paintings
no longer had anything to do with his original starting points in the visible
world. At the exhibition held at Voor de Kunst in Utrecht in the spring of 1919,
he called works of this kind Mathematical images. He had the following to say in
the article referred to above: ‘Mathematical truth
gives expression to all that exists in the cosmos. In the visual arts (painting)
a single mathematical image or signal is a symbol or image of our spiritual
experience of cosmic reality.'
he apparently still needed an identifiable starting point for his studies with
shapes and composition. 10
Van der Leek's influence on Mondrian, on the other hand, is far less clear. He
sought Van der Leek's opinion on the articles he initially published in De
Stijl, which his wife supposedly edited. In any event, Van der Leek deserves
much of the credit for imbuing him with the idea of integrating painting and
architecture. Given the profound concentration with which Mondrian was to
furnish and decorate his studios he obviously took it very much to heart. Even
so, their differing views on art drove a wedge between them In the end, Mondrian
probably disapproved of the diagonal lines that Van der Leek continued to use,
while Van der Leek frowned upon the grey-black rasters in Mondrian's
compositions, which in his opinion sealed his works off from the outside world.
Their friendship finally came to an end when Mondrian returned to Paris in 1919,
but they never lost respect for one another as artists.
Bremmer and Helene Kroller-Muller were also disappointed with the path Van der
Leek had chosen to follow in his work. They saw his 'break with the visible
world' as an uncharacteristic imitation of Mondrian, and for Kroller-Muller it
was reason enough to end the contract after the second year. Though Bremmer
persisted for another year, he too finally decided to withdraw his support. He
could only help Van der Leek financially as long as he could sell the works he
acquired to his mostly well-to-do pupils, but by this time he apparently had too
little faith in Van der Leek to take any further risk.
March 1919, Van der Leek also fell out with Klaarhamer over an argument about
money, so that within the space of a year he had managed to alienate himself
from the four people who, apart from his family, had meant the most to him. As
an artist, he appears to have suffered a crisis around this time, which may have
been a precipitating factor. Though his work had been steady and consistent up
to that point, his oeuvre from the years 1918 to 1921 displays a marked
dichotomy. Besides the Mathematical images referred to earlier, in which the
geometric structure of the compositions was paramount, he also produced work
following the same procedure and still abstracting his original starting point,
except that now, for a practised eye, it was fairly easy to reconstruct. And
once again he started giving these works titles in order to give the observer
something to go by (fig.4).
This was the direction that Bremmer felt was suited to him, and in mid-1920,
when Van der Leek resolved to continue along these lines - possibly encouraged
by Bremmer - the old contract was swiftly renewed.
11 In exchange for a agreed annual stipend, Van der
Leek was to give all his work to Bremmer, who would try to sell it to his
pupils. This arrangement remained in place for over a decade, during which time
the family relied entirely on the income from Bremmer. For reasons of his own,
Bremmer often suggested subjects he considered appropriate for Van der Leek, but
left the artist free to decide for himself. And in many cases, Van der Leek
complied with Bremmer's requests. He apparently felt that the role he had sought
as an applied artist, which generally pre-supposed a patron, was also acceptable
in 'free' painting. Through history this practice was by no means unusual, but
it had largely died out with the Romantic Movement.
Van der Leck worked stedily throughout the 1920s, ultimately producing an
average of about three or four paintings
a year. He continued to develop his idiom, although the advances he made were
more subtle than they had been in the past. He had found his ultimate form
around 1920 and emerged as a mature artist. In the following years, however,
that form was never to become an indifferent, automatic routine. One important
step in that process of maturation should not be overlooked. In the mid-1920s,
when he introduced a mixed grey for the elements that defined his pictures and
reduced the number of areas in primary colours, Van der Leek started
distributing those colour accents more systematically throughout the picture
space. In his subsequent work these accents in the same colour usually appear on
the corners of imaginary geometric shapes or on guiding lines such as the
diagonals (fig.5). In this way, he explored the 'mathematical foundations' of
the visible world with the utmost subtlety, but with no less thought than
Van der Leck’s less than prolific output declined further around 1930. He
suffered a stroke towards the end of 1929, from which he only recovered slowly.
In the meantime, the Netherlands was starting to feel the impact of the global
economic crisis, and Bremmer was compelled to reduce Van der Leek's stipend.
However, besides Bremmer a second patron had appeared on the scene in the person
of Jo de Leeuw. De Leeuw owned the prestigious Metz & Co. department stores,
which stocked not only a conventional range of products but also gave
avant-garde artists, designers and architects an opportunity to produce,
showcase and market their work. Its collection included fabrics by Sonia
Delaunay (1885-1979) and Vilmos Huszar, carpets by Georges Vantongerloo
(1886-1965) and furniture by Rietveld and J.J.P. Oud (1890-1963).
12 Van der Leek was engaged to
choose colours for the collections of fabrics and to design new interiors for De
Leeuw personally and for the branches in The Hague
(1934) and Amsterdam (1950/51). He worked with Rietveld on both projects.
Several carpets bearing his designs were also produced over the years (some
after the 'mathematical' paintings he had completed years earlier), and he also
designed packaging materials.
In late 1933, hoping to break into a new market or adapt to one that was
changing, Bremmer advised Van der Leek to try his hand at painting and glazing
ceramics. This type of craftwork was relatively inexpensive and he was hoping it
would find buyers in the unfavourable economic climate of the time. From 1936
on, after spending several years (!) mastering the technique of getting
the glaze and colour just right, Van der Leek produced a steady flow of tiles.
The majority were sold through the art gallery of G.J. Nieuwenhuizen Segaar in
The Hague, mostly to a 'Bremmerian' public (see lot
Van der Leek had thus drifted from the fine arts to the applied arts, which was
precisely where he wanted to be. He produced only a few canvases at sporadic
intervals after the mid-1930s. Nor did he paint much during the Second World
War, partly for lack of equipment. He returned to his old calling once those
dark years had passed, but his progress was slow. We know from the dates on his
paintings that he often spent several years working on them. In fact The reaper
(1946-1952) took a full six years (see lot 232). In the post-war years Van der
Leek finally had several opportunities to achieve his lifelong ideal of
integrating painting and architecture. Though most of these commissions were
from and for private patrons, three projects stand out. The staff canteen at the
Ketjen factory in Amsterdam (1952, in collaboration with his friend, the
architect Piet Filing), the overall colour design project for the Dutch Aviation
School in Eelde (1953/56, on which he worked with Pierre Cuypers) and the
glazed-tile mural for the VARA studios in Hilversum (posthumously executed by
Filing) gave him an opportunity to produce truly monumental art for a large
public. Though no longer young, Van der Leek was not prepared to rest on his
laurels. Around the mid-1950s, when he was almost 80 years old, he finally - or
perhaps again - started producing completely non-figurative compositions.
13 Though this must have come as
a surprise at the end of a career spanning so many years, he may have done so
for a number of reasons, all of which are related to the revival of De Stijl
shortly after the war, or more accurately, the appreciation it finally received
in the Netherlands. The reappraisal was prompted by the international -
predominantly American - appreciation Mondrian enjoyed towards the end of his
life from the art world and the public at large. In 1945, the Museum of Modern
Art in New York launched the first museum retrospective of his work, and was
followed soon afterwards by the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. In 1947/48, Nelly
van Doesburg (1899-1975) persuaded seven American museums to mount a
retrospective of her husband's work. 14
In the summer of 1951, the Stedelijk Museum mounted the long-awaited first
retrospective of De StijI. This exhibition represented the Netherlands at the
Venice Biennale the following year, before going on to the MoMA in New York. The
committee responsible for preparing these exhibitions comprised several former
contributors to the publication, plus Nelly van Doesburg. However, Van der Leek
was not invited to join. These preparations and the exhibitions themselves
inspired a 'documentary review' of the journal and its associates by H.L.C.
Jaffe, which led to the publication of his highly praised dissertation in
Though Van der Leek had also had his first retrospective at the Stedelijk Museum
in the spring of 1949, he must nevertheless have felt pushed aside by the
tremendous interest that De Stijl in general, and particularly Mondrian and Van
Doesburg (whose work he considered dubious) had managed to generate. This may
have prompted his decision to convince the world that he was capable of painting
completely non-representational compositions. The seven abstract paintings he
completed in the last four years of his life (besides ten more 'conventional'
works – he literally had a final spurt) prove that he indeed mastered
1. Biographical details are based largely on R.W.D. Oxenaar,
Bart van der Leek tot 1920. Een primitief van de nieuwe tijd, Utrecht/The Hague
1976 (diss.). A summarised article based on this dissertation is available in
several languages. In English as 'The Birth of De Stijl, Part two: Bart van der
Leek' in Artforum, XI (1973) 10, pp. 36-43; in German as an article in exhib.cat.
Bart van der Leek 1875-1958, Berlin (Nationalgalerie) 1977, unpaginated (both
revised and expanded in exhib.cat. Mondrian und De StijI, Cologne (Galerie
Gmurzynska) 1979. pp. 47-66; and in French as an article in exhib.cat.Sort van
der Leek 1876-1958. A la recherche de I'image des temps modernes, Paris (Institut
Neerlandais) 1980. pp. 5-12.
2. For results from this period, see lots 184 and 189.
3. The first evidence of contact between them is a postcard
Bremmer sent Van der Leek on 11 May 1911. See Cees Hilhorst (ed.), Vriendschap
op afstand. De correspondentie tussen Bart van der Leek en H.P. Bremmer,
RKD-bronnenreeks I, Bussum 1999, p. 79. The introduction to this complete
collection of letters has been translated into English; see 'Introduction', pp.
4. Exhib.cat. Bart van der Leek, Otterlo (Kroller-Muller
Museum) 1994 offers the most comprehensively illustrated account of the
development of Van der Leek's oeuvre.
5. Both paintings are in the collection of the Kroller- Muller
Museum in Otterlo.
6. See Lien Heyting, De wereld in een dorp. Schilders,
schrijvers en wereldverbeteraars in Laren en Blaricum 1880-1920, Amsterdam 1994.
7. B. van der Leek, (Inleiding), exhib.cat. Tentoonstelling
van werken door B. van der Leek, Utrecht (Vereniging
'Voor de Kunst') 1919, unpaginated.
8. On Van der Leek's involvement with De StijI, see Cees
Hilhorst, 'Bart van der Leek', in Carel Blotkamp et al, De beginjaren van De
StijI 1917-1922, Utrecht 1982, pp. 155-185. Translated into English: De StijI.
The Formative Years 1917-1922, Cambridge (Mass.I/London 1985, pp. 153-185, and
Italian: De StijI, Nascita di un movimento, Milan 1989, pp. 241-292. See also
Carel Blotkamp and Cees Hilhorst, 'De dissidente kunstenaars: Bart van der Leek,
Vilmos Huszar, Georges Vantongerloo' in Carel Blotkamp (ed.), De vervolgjaren
van De StijI 1922-1932, Amsterdam/Antwerp 1996, pp. 311-362, notably pp.
9. See n. 7.
10. See Hilhorst (note 8), figs. 145-147, 149-154, 157-164 and
11. Another two
Mathematical images were completed in 1921 (now in the collections of the
Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and the Centraal Museum in Utrecht), but Van der
Leek had started them earlier and they were therefore not covered by the
12. See Petra Timmer, Metz & Co, de creatieve jaren, Rotterdam
13. According to the oeuvre list in W.C. Feltkamp, B.A. van
der Leek. Leven en werken, Leiden s.a. , the first 'non-figurative
painting' must have been completed in 1954 (p. 96, no. 155); its whereabouts are
unfortunately unknown to me. Although Feltkamp's datings are rather
questionable, particularly for the later years (nos. 154 and 156 were not
completed in 1954 as the list states, but in 1952-1955, given the dating on the
backs), the first abstract composition must have been completed by the time the
book appeared, in 1956.
14. Shortly after Van Doesburg's death, in 1932, a wide range
had been on show in Paris and in 1936 four rooms were reserved for him at the
Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. For Van Doesburg's posthumous exhibitions, see
Wies van Moorsel, Nelly van Doesburg 1899-1975. 'De doorsnee is mij niet genoeg',
Nijmegen 2000, pp. 212-246.
15. Jaffe informed Van der Leek of this plan on 13 December
1952; letter in the Bart van der Leek Archive, RKD,The Hague.
with one grey stripe
oil on canvas 110 x