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White Christmas Roses – ‘fresh from Mondrian’s studio’

October 6, 2020

By Wietse Coppes

Piet Mondrian, White Christmas Roses, 1923, oil on canvas, 25.5 x 18.5 cm, image courtesy Bonhams, New York

Research into Mondrian’s correspondence and writings reveals not just a great deal of new information about the artist’s life, but also concerning his work. That the letters can help with securing attributions emerges from our provenance research into the painting White Christmas Roses, which turned up recently. This work was brought into the auction house Bonhams in New York early in 2020.

Most people who look at the White Christmas Roses painting will not immediately think of Mondrian, even though the painter made many dozens of paintings, drawings and watercolours of flower subjects throughout his life. Often these are images of a single, isolated example, with just the bloom worked up, and with the stem usually shown only in part and sketchily. Into the 1930s Mondrian kept food on his Paris table by the production of ‘little flower pieces’, which friends in the Netherlands sold for him for 25 guilders. At the start of his career Mondrian did sometimes paint more elaborate still lifes, as is the case with the present work. The research into the date and provenance for this painting was solved in part thanks to labels preserved on the verso of the White Christmas Roses.

Art dealer E.J. van Wisselingh & Co.
One of the labels is that of the Dutch art dealer E.J. van Wisselingh & Co. This gallery was renowned both in the Netherlands and abroad, and its archive is held at the RKD. The archive includes a black and white photograph, pasted on cardboard, of White Christmas Roses. Information on the mount reveals that the title assigned to the work by Van Wisselingh was Anemones in a Ginger Jar, and it notes that the work dated from c. 1908. The photograph, together with the dimensions recorded for the painting, makes clear that it refers to the White Christmas Roses. On the verso of the photo mount is a note that leads to two further owners of the work: ‘1960 – collectie Siedenburg’ and ‘1962 – David B. Findlay Inc.’.

Photograph of Mondrian’s White Christmas Roses, c. 1960, E.J. van Wisselingh & Co. Archive, collection RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History

Siedenburg collection
The connection with the Siedenburg collection was soon established. From the end of the nineteenth century Joop Siedenburg was not just Mondrian’s friend, but he was also owner of the Amsterdam art dealer Frans Buffa & Zonen. Mondrian was one of the artists he represented. Their friendship seems to have been close and resulted in 1904 in a portrait of Siedenburg, whom Mondrian rendered as he sat at a piano with legs crossed. The smoke rising from the panatella cigar in his mouth, and the hat worn perched on top of his head, give the portrait a roguish feel.

Piet Mondrian, Portrait of Joop Siedenburg (1875-1961) at the piano, c. 1904, charcoal on paper, 51 x 28 cm, collection Kunstmuseum, The Hague

Thanks to the Mondrian catalogue raisonné we know that Siedenburg also possessed another flower still life by Mondrian, titled White Roses (A100). Siedenburg showed that painting in 1923 in an exhibition at Frans Buffa & Zonen called Bloemen en Stillevens (Flowers and still lifes). A review of the exhibition by Nathan Wolf for the journal De Kunst reveals that White Roses was not the only flower still life by Mondrian that was then hanging. In addition, there was also a ‘smaller panel [on show], with White Christmas Roses, which Mr Siedenburg brought with him last week fresh from Mondrian’s studio.’

Piet Mondrian, White Phloxes, c. 1900-1908, oil on canvas, 46.5 x 24 cm, private collection

Confusion concerning two paintings
It looks as if the two works got confused in the catalogue raisonné, possibly because the compiler Robert Welsh was not able to ascertain the location of the White Christmas Roses. In his catalogue entry he slips in a reservation that shows that he was not absolutely sure of this matter. Wolf’s review makes clear that the work catalogued as White Roses did not show roses, but a bunch of white phloxes. Furthermore he writes that one of the paintings is on canvas and the other on panel. The latter is the case with the White Christmas Roses, which was painted on paper but then mounted on a panel. The quotation just mentioned shows that the little panel with the Christmas roses had been collected from Mondrian by Joop Siedenburg shortly before the exhibition. This is confirmed by a letter which Mondrian sent to a woman friend in the Netherlands at the beginning of November, in which he writes that shortly ‘someone from Holland’ was coming to visit, who could ‘bring a painting to A’dam’ for her. Although Siedenburg is not mentioned by name, we can cautiously conclude from the context of the review, and the fact that this ‘Dutchman’ was able to take works of art with him to Holland, that this does indeed refer to the artist’s dealer and friend in Amsterdam.

Sales 1960-1962
A letter from Joop’s son Hein Siedenburg, a photocopy of which is contained in the archive of Mondrian scholar Joop M. Joosten, provides a new and important piece of the puzzle, which further reinforces the attribution to Mondrian: ‘At the start of that year [1960] I sold Mondrian’s (beautiful) small flower piece for father to v. Wisseling, I think for f. 2500.’ Because the painting of the white phloxes had already been sold in the 1950s by Siedenburg to the art dealer G.J. Nieuwenhuizen Segaar, and because there were no other flower still lives by Mondrian in his possession, we can be sure that the painting under discussion was the one showing the white Christmas roses. Shortly after he acquired it, Van Wisselingh lent the work to the exhibition of French Paintings of the XIXth and XXth Centuries, organised by Laing Galleries in Toronto, Canada. In the exhibition catalogue the work was described as Roses de Noël (cat. 32). The description cut out from the catalogue still remains on the verso of the panel.

Reverse of Piet Mondrian’s White Christmas Roses with, in the centre, the label from the exhibition French Paintings of the XIXth and XXth Centuries, image courtesy Bonhams, New York

Thanks to the text on the verso of the photograph from the Van Wisselingh archive, we know that he must have sold the painting in 1962 to the David B. Findlay Gallery in New York. A relative of the current owner must have bought the work from the gallery in or shortly after 1962, after which nothing is known until it resurfaced again in 2020 at the auction house Bonham’s.

‘Mondrian is painting normally again!’
As emerges from his review in 1923, Nathan Wolf was excited about the painting: ‘it shows all the hallmarks of the influence of the great French flower painters – the broad stroke, the fine tone, the clear execution and simplicity of the composition; and so these white Christmas roses have become a precious little work indeed.’ In his lyrical description the conservative critic really puts his cards on the table. He was no lover of abstraction, to which Mondrian had moved over in about 1912: ‘the happiest thing about this latest, Paris work by Mondrian, is the message that accompanies it: Mondrian is painting normally again!’

White Christmas Roses will be added to the digital Piet Mondrian: Catalogue Raisonné which is administered by the RKD. This catalogue is the updated and extended online edition of Piet Mondrian: Catalogue Raisonné by Robert P. Welsh and Joop M. Joosten of 1998.

View the painting on the website of Bonhams here.