Mondrian's Lifestyle

Mondrian's desk

Mondrian and ... Food - Cigarettes - Women - Sex

This is a subject that has interested me for some time, but I have only recently managed to gather the first items of information on. I find myself wondering,

...and so on: the list can grow and any contributions will be gratefully received.

One interesting note from the Catalogue Raisonné is that Harry Holtzman made an inventory of Mondrian's studio before opening it to the public for a month after he died, 'Holtzman and Glarner carefully measured Mondrian's studio: they photographed it, filmed and documented its contents.' (Welsh & Joosten, II p 182). That is a document I would like to see, but I have not seen any other reference to it.

A couple of sources came my way in late November 2002 which have provided the impetus to start the page. The December 1966 edition of Studio International contains a number of reminiscences from Mondrian's period in London (1938-40), including a couple of references to eating. The catalogue for the 1970 exhibition Mondrian: Process Works includes several sketched on cigarette packs. December 2002 brought an article Mondrian in Disneyland by Els Hoek, from the February 1989 edition of Art in America.

General Observations

Holtzman and Martin S. James published Mondrian's Collected Writings and there are some key observations in Holtzman's opening essay, Piet Mondrian: The Man and His Work

Mondrian was average in height and thinly built. In the years I knew him he has a balding head, a large nose, and wore glasses that emphasized his dark eyes; he had, on the surface, a serious introspective face. His clothing was always simple, conventional, undistinguished. Only his eyes and his long elegant hands gave hint of the artist. His speech often seemed slow, restrained by the change of language and his scrupulous search for the appropriate words. (Harry Holtzman, 1, p.2)

One thing that always struck me about Mondrian was that you felt that his lineage went way back. I once said to him, "Mondrian, what were you like when you were young?" and he replied, "I was always the same, Charmion, I was born old!" He meant what they call in Theosophical terms: to have "an old soul," which indicates that one has been reincarnated many times. 4 Mondrian was convinced that he had already lived other lives. (Charmion von Wiegand, 4, p.80)

Mondrian and Food

Reminiscences by his friends in London,

I doubt if there was any room for anything [in the studio] except all those canvases - sometimes we had tezanne made of cherry stone stalks, that was if he had sold a picture in Switzerland and was in funds. (Winifred Nicholson, referring to Mondrian's Paris studio, 2, p 286)

He was always on some kind of cranky diet and at this time he was on what was called 'The Haye Diet' after a Dr Haye who was very popular in France. We used to tease Mondrian, insisting that he existed on carrots alone. He came to us often for lunch because I knew what he would and would not eat. (Miriam Gabo, referring to Mondrian's time in London, 2. p.289)

He couldn't look after himself properly. He was terribly thin, and seemed to live mostly on currants and vegetable stew, because he followed the Haye diet. He rarely touched meat. (Naum Gabo, referring to Mondrian's time in London, 2. p.292)

... we often journeyed to Paris, often to share a meal which he had prepared with considerable effort himself. He would take the whole day in order to purchase the food and prepare the meal ... Although his own cooking remained basically Dutch, he vocally proclaimed the superiority of French cuisine and made a point of teaching me to cut potatoes in the French instead of the Dutch manner. (Nelly Van Doesburg, 4. p.69)

The article Mondrian in Disneyland (8) quotes from a letter from Mondrian to his brother Carel, postmarked 28th October 1938, while Piet was living in London,

I'm hardly aware of these [the other residents of Parkhill Road] people, only sometimes the house has a smell of delicious roast beef or fish. I make my meals much as at Raspail. At first, in the hotel and before I got myself organized I didn't eat very scientifically, though I was able to select the right food combinations. There aren't any cafes here, but there are tea shops and Mary would absolutely drool over the delicious (looking) cakes.

Later in the article, Hoek comments,

The long letter refers as well to another of Mondrian's habits: the 'scientifically balanced' diet. His friends knew of this interest of his, and would laugh at him about it, "We used to tease Mondrian, insisting that he existed on carrots alone," Miriam Gabo recalls. But their teasing often was coupled with an almost protective concern. Naum Gabo wrote in 1966: "He couldn't look after himself properly. He was terrible [sic] thin, and seemed to live mostly on currants and vegetable stew, because he followed the Haye diet."

The dietetic teaching of Dr. Howard Haye was especially popular in France. Mondrian, always fascinated by alternative medicine, discovered this system of dietetics in 1936. In a letter to his brother Carel in March of that year, he describes the system in great detail; it was based on the idea that the right combinations of foods were the essence of healthy eating, Mondrian says, "For example, meat, eggs and fish do not combine with potatoes or farinaceous foods." In fact, it was not recommended that you eat large quantities of meat or farinaceous products, and sugar was to be shunned totally. Vegetables, fruit and milk, on the other hand, were highly recommended. It was not only because this dietetic teaching made large claims for itself that Mondrian was attracted to it; he also liked its scientific approach, When Jean Gorin, in early 1937, referred to it simply as a diet, Mondrian quickly put him right: "Ce n'est pas un regime, c'est une alimentation scientifique." ["It's not a diet, but scientific dietetics."]

and notes,

The book in which Haye expounds his dietary principle, entitled The Medical Millennium, was published in Pittsburgh. Mondrian had a copy of the 17th edition, from 1933, a volume that he had been given by Jean Helion, who wrote the following dedication inside it [translated from French]: "To my dear friend Mondrian, hoping that this little book will confer upon you perfect health." This book was part of the Mondrian estate, and is now in the archive of Harry Holtzman in New York.(Els Hoek, 8, p.143)

Restaurant Le Boeuf sur le Toit, Paris, c. 1925

He loved going out, dining and dancing. I often accompanied him. Mondrian would ask me, "Come by this evening about eight and I'll take you out with my friends from Holland and we'll go to Le Boeuf sur le Toit. There we'll east for a change." He very much wanted me to come along, but I was very pored the whole evening: I didn't dance. Mondrian did. But not all women liked to dance with him. They thought the figures he made were too difficult. He often went out with Dutch people. In Amsterdam or the Hague people would say to each other, "If you go to Paris you have to go to Mondrian's studio, but you have to invite him out for a good dinner." (Michel Suephor 7. p.15)

In his social life Mondrian was always friendly but formal. It would never occur to his friends to drop in unannounced. I always waited for a note or post card that conveyed the message: "If you are not too busy, shall be pleased to see you on Tuesday (tomorrow) after five." On occasion, when I came, he would be in his immaculate little kitchen preparing his dinner. For years he had followed the Hauser diet. His fare was of the simplest, arranged with taste and a certain elegance, even if no more than bacon and boiled potatoes with a green salad and cheese. Sometimes I was invited to dine with him. Then he made elaborate preparations, going shopping to buy pastry or ice cream, because that was "what Americans liked." His was a hospitable nature, and he would always offer visitors tea or a "cocktail," which turned out to be a glass of V8. He rarely drank anything, but on festive occasions he was fond of a glass of wine.
In these months he was still enamored of American utilities. He had never in his life had an electric icebox; it filled him with awe, but he kept no ice cubes in it. Ice water was bad for the health, he said, and if anyone asked for a cold drink, he ran the water from the tap. He kept his white enamelled stove shining, and once when something happened to the gas, he was in a nervous crisis. I found him scrubbing the marks of the gas man's feet off the floor, which he kept spotless. Born in the age of gaslight and the horsecar, he had become an apostle of modernity in Paris. But confronted with the actual gadgets of modern life, he was not at ease. (Charmion von Wigand, 9)

Mondrian and Cigarettes


The starting point must be the Kertesz photograph of Mondrian's pipe. There are many photographs of PM with a cigarette, but cannot recall any with a pipe.

Blue Line

The 1970 exhibition Mondrian: Process Works includes several sketched on cigarette packs, including one shown here. The brand is not clear, but it looks as though it might be Blue Line. I can find no reference to such a brand.(3, p.45)

He made a ritual of rolling his cigarettes like the average French worker ... Typically, when I later visited him in England, Mondrian had adopted the English cigarette and other national habits with the same dedication previously shown toward France. I suppose the same thing happened when he moved to the United States. (Nelly Van Doesburg, 4, p.69)

[August 2010] The Catalogue Raisonné lists several works sketched on cigarette packets,

Craven A PM with a pipe

But his sketching was not restricted to cigarette packets, as B350 is on a 'torn milk tablet package'.

I still cannot find any reference to Blue Line cigarettes, but here's a Craven "A" pack.

[March 2011] I have at last found a photograph of Mondrian with a pipe, taken by André Kertész in 1926.

Mondrian and Women

A few weeks after Mondrian had settled in to his new life in New York, we were once walking across 57th Street from a gallery visit. "Tell me. Harry, why don't I see prostitutes on the streets here?" In mock surprise I chided, "Why Piet!" "Don't misunderstand me," he laughed, "it has been some time since I've had such a need, but why is it?" In Paris prostitution was legal, and each neighborhood had its regularly assigned entrepreneurs. I explained that prostitution was illegal here, and then told him what I knew of the way it operated. After some discussion of culture differences, I took the opportunity to ask Piet why he had never married. "Well," he said, "to tell you the truth, I never could afford it." He chuckled and went on, "Once I did live with a woman for a time, but when we differed and decided to separate, she took all the furniture!" When he died, the Dutch press reported stories of three women who proudly claimed to have been his very intimate friends. (Harry Holtzman, 1, p.6)

Although he was in his fifties when I knew him in Paris, the subject of women was ever on his lips. He would interrupt any type of conversation in order to comment with boyish enthusiasm upon the physical attractiveness of some admired example of the opposite sex. His taste was catholic in this respect, ranging from the refined beauty of a number of female acquaintances to the more direct appeal of pin-up posters. He was completely captivated by the charms of Mae West, who at the time was quite young, but nonetheless used artificial make-up in a way that Mondrian found attractive. Indeed, his ideal wife would have been precisely this kind of youthful love goddess, whose chief virtue of character would be the patience to spend long hours in a corner of his pristine studio knitting or watching him paint a Mae West in crinolines, so to speak. Perhaps Mondrian himself realized that these two ideals were difficult to combine, as his often repeated disappointments in love graphically illustrated. (Nelly Van Doesburg, 4, p.70)

[Kickert] bought a number of canvases by Mondrian, who was often a summer guest at his villa at Zandvoort by the Sea. He told me that there Mondrian was greatly attracted to a beautiful blonde, also a guest at the villa. But the young lady did not respond to Mondrian's attentions, and the latter became most unhappy. "Poor Piet," says Kickert, "it was always the same story every time he fell in love, and it always upset him."
Mondrian's entire love life was marked by such failures, affairs which were always cut short; there were also one or two broken engagements. But he was always prone to quick infatuation, like a college boy. So strongly did he feel the lack of a woman in his daily life that he always kept a flower - an artificial flower suggesting a feminine presence - in the round vase standing on the hall table of his studio at the Rue du Depart. This was something so strange and unexpected, that in 1926 I had it photographed. Mondrian did not lack a certain attraction for women. But, despite his simplicity, they soon found in him something mysterious and impenetrable which turned them away. At times he had a priestly air, something no woman likes. Beneath the surface there was always a major concern which would compromise with nothing. Even though, like Baudelaire's albatross, he had "giant wings," he was able to walk, provided he could walk slowly at his customary pace. But those "wings" did scare off other birds. (Seuphor, 6, p.86)

Mondrian and Sex

One night in New York we were returning home from a party in a taxi, with Peggy Guggenheim sitting between us. An old friend and admirer of Mondrian, Peggy was an uninhibited woman to say the least. Peggy leaned her head on Piet's shoulder, snuggling close to him. Piet put his arms around her, and after a moment he bent his head and kissed her mouth arduously and long. "Why Mondrian!" she exclaimed in seeming astonishment, "I thought you were so pure!" After we dropped her off at her house, Mondrian was delighted: "They" - meaning the Surrealists: Peggy was then married to Max Ernst -" they always call me pure!" (Harry Holtzman, 1, p.6)

He was very reclusive and I think that the reclusiveness was part of his feeling that he simply had to save everything for his art. E L T Mesens, a Belgian surrealist, was a very young man in Paris in the '20s. He met Mondrian one Saturday and took him to lunch. They had a certain amount to drink and after lunch Mesens tried to persuade Mondrian to accompany him to a brothel. Mondrian declined and he said "every drop of semen spent is a masterpiece lost". (This anecdote is recounted by John Golding, painter and critic, in the excellent video, Mondrian: Mr Boogie-Woogie Man (5). I have removed conjunctions and inserted punctuation.


  1. The Collected Writings of Piet Mondrian, Edited and Translated by Harry Holtzman and Martin S. James, Da Capo Press
  2. Studio International, Dec 1966
  3. Mondrian: The Process Works, 1970
  4. Piet Mondrian Centennial Exhibition, Guggenheim Foundation, 1971 - Nelly van Doesburg - Charmion von Wiegand
  5. Mondrian: Mr Boogie-Woogie Man, video, Phaidon
  6. Piet Mondrian: Life and Work, Michel Seuphor, Abrams, 1957
  7. 26, Rue du Départ, Frans Postma, pub Ernst & Sohn
  8. Art in America, February 1989, Mondrian in Disneyland
  9. Mondrian: a memoir of his New York period, Charmion von Wigand, Arts Yearbook 4, 1961

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page started 29th November 2002, rewritten 7th August 2010