Special correspondents: Mondrian and Jan VerhoevenDecember 1, 2020
by Laurens Kleine Deters
In our regular feature ‘Special correspondents’ we take a closer look at individuals with whom Mondrian corresponded. This time the spotlight is on Dutch artist Jan (Jean) Verhoeven (1870-1941). Earlier this year, the only known postcard from Piet Mondrian to Verhoeven surfaced at an Amsterdam auction. The postcard was bought by the Van Reekum-van Moorselaar Foundation, which donated it to the RKD in July.
Dutchman in Paris
Jan Verhoeven was born in Amsterdam on 31 July 1870. Having worked for some time as a painter and journalist in Amsterdam and Groningen, he registered in Paris on 11 May 1900. In Montmartre he shared a studio with Kees van Dongen, who was to have a significant influence on Verhoeven’s artistic development. Not long after at the Salon d’Automne, Verhoeven was introduced to the Fauvist work of Henri Matisse and Maurice de Vlaminck, which inspired him to start his own Fauvist experiments. In 1910 his work was exhibited alongside that of Odilon Redon and Henri Baptiste Lebasque at the prominent Parisian Galerie Druet. He also took part in the large-scale Fauvism exhibition at V.S.U. Mánes in Prague, probably through Van Dongen’s intercession.
Modern Art Circle
Shortly after its inception in November 1910, Jan Verhoeven joined the Modern Art Circle (‘de Moderne Kunstkring’) in Amsterdam, which Mondrian had helped to found. In the first few years of its existence, Verhoeven was one of its most prolific contributors. From the first exhibition of the Modern Art Circle in October 1911, the work of Verhoeven and Mondrian was exhibited collectively in Amsterdam and Paris on a regular basis. At the instigation of Conrad Kickert, the driving force behind the promotion of Dutch avant-garde art abroad and vice versa, both artists were represented at the influential Internationale Kunstausstellung des Sonderbundes in Cologne in May 1912. Verhoeven exhibited three Fauvist paintings there and Mondrian an unidentified drawing entitled Hyazinthe. In all probability this drawing was on view at the exhibition of the Modern Art Circle later that year. Despite the fact that they had shared exhibitions on more than one occasion, Mondrian had reservations about Verhoeven’s work. He wrote to his friend Lodewijk Schelfhout on 12 June 1914: ‘It is as you write, we can thoroughly enjoy each other’s work although we each choose to travel along different paths. It is the same with myself and Verhoeven, whose work is very unlike my own, and yet we appreciate each other. I even had a joint exhibition with him in Zürich although nothing was sold.’ The final remark of this quotation refers to an exhibition of modern Parisian art at Kunstsalon Wolfsberg in Zürich in February and March of 1914, for which Verhoeven had recommended Mondrian. Although on this occasion he did not sell anything, Mondrian’s participation in the exhibition served to further his reputation abroad. Shortly afterwards he sold the painting entitled Tableau A (B30) to Swiss collector Fritz Meyer-Fierz, who in all likelihood had already seen the work at Wolfsberg’s. The painting entitled La Mer (B17), which ended up in the collection of Meyer-Fierz as well, was probably also on view at the same exhibition.
‘Kunstzeitschriften aller Länder’
During the same period Jan Verhoeven’s work gained considerable recognition in Switzerland, because between 1912 and 1915, he had several solo exhibitions in Kunstsalon Wolfsberg, and his paintings were on view at Kunsthaus Zürich at least twice. The preface to the catalogue accompanying the first exhibition at Wolfsberg predicted that ‘es wird wohl nicht mehr lange dauern, bis sich die Kunstzeitschriften aller Länder eingehend mit VERHOEVEN beschäftigen.’ (it will surely not be long before art journals from all over the world will devote their undivided attention to VERHOEVEN). Although his art was reviewed in Das Werk and the Schweizerische Bauzeitung in 1914 and 1915, Verhoeven’s anticipated international breakthrough was never achieved: nowadays his work is all but forgotten. Until the late 1930-ies, Verhoeven was a frequent participant in the Parisian salons, often with the flower still lifes and oriental dancers that are so characteristic of him. These favoured subject choices caused the correspondent of Het Vaderland to complain about Verhoeven’s ‘perpetual Malaysian figures.’
Short but significant
The postcard is the only known mail exchange between Mondrian and Verhoeven. The amical tone seems to imply that the two knew each other well, and that probably many more letters were lost. The card was sent from Amsterdam on 6 October 1915. At that time, Mondrian, who had established himself in Paris in 1912, found himself staying in the Netherlands with his brothers, having been stranded there in the summer of 1914 during a visit that had originally been intended to only last a fortnight. Mondrian wrote the postcard in French, possibly as a quick reassurance to French wartime censorship- and mail inspection authorities that there was nothing suspicious about its contents. Nevertheless, the war still proved a delaying factor: it appears from the postmarks that it took no less than four days for the postcard to get to Paris. By comparison: under normal circumstances, a postcard posted in Amsterdam in the morning could be delivered in Paris on the very same day. By way of the postcard Mondrian informed Verhoeven that the Moderne Kunstkring (Modern Art Circle) was ‘fini’, and that he and Kickert had parted ways: ‘Schelfh., Sluyters, v. Gestel [sic] and I have walked away and are having a joint exhibition, with some pieces by Le Fauconnier, who is still here.’ The exhibition in the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam that Mondrian mentions, was important to him for several reasons, not least of which was that it would bring about the first contact between himself and painter-critic Theo van Doesburg.
In the postcard, Mondrian shows himself to be remarkably optimistic about a prompt return to Paris, where he had kept on his studio since the outbreak of the war. Besides his free work, to make ends meet and to be able to afford the (double) rent, he did portraits and, on commission from an unknown collector from Hamburg, made a large reproduction of a painting from the Rijksmuseum. ‘I cannot return to Paris yet: one needs money to live on, after all. As soon as I have managed to secure this, I will come immediately.’ However, it would not be until the end of June 1919 that he could actually return to France. If by that time he was still in touch with Verhoeven is unknown.
Dear friends, you are probably in Paris. Please drop me a line: I would like to know how you are all doing. I am in Laren and from time to time in Amsterdam. I am working on a reproduction in the Museum. The Mod. Art Circle is ‘dead and gone’. Schelfh., Sluyters, v. Gestel [sic] and I have walked away and are having a joint exhibition with some pieces by Le Fauconnier, who is still here. I cannot return to Paris yet: one needs money to live on, after all. As soon as I have managed to secure this, I will come immediately.
Best regards, Piet.’