Lot 3
  • 3

Theo van Doesburg

1,200,000 - 1,800,000 GBP
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  • Theo van Doesburg
  • Contra-Composition VII
  • signed Theo v. Doesburg and dated 1924 Paris on the stretcher
  • oil on canvas
  • 45.3 by 45cm.
  • 17 7/8 by 17 3/4 in.


Nelly van Doesburg (the artist’s widow; acquired in 1931)

Harry Lackritz, Chicago (probably acquired from the above in 1947-48)

Sidney Janis Gallery, New York

Morton G. Neumann, Chicago (acquired from the above)

Hubert G. Neumann, New York (by descent from the above. Sold: Sotheby’s, New York, 8th May 2007, lot 43)

Purchased at the above sale by the present owner


(possibly) New York, The Little Review Gallery,Works by Léger [...], Theo van Doesburg, Ossip Zadkine, etc., 1925

New York, The Little Review Gallery, 1926

Paris, Parc des Expositions, Porte de Versailles, '1940' Deuxième exposition, Rétrospective van Doesburg, 1932, no. 48

Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, Theo van Doesburg, 1936, (possibly) no. 57

New York, Art of this Century Gallery, Theo van Doesburg. Retrospective exhibition, 1947, (possibly) no. 27

(possibly) Los Angeles, County Museum of Art, Walt Kuhn, Lyonel Feininger and Theo van Doesburg, 1947

San Francisco, The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Theo van Doesburg, 1947, no. 1095

(possibly) Seattle, Henry Art Gallery, Theo van Doesburg, 1947

Chicago, The Renaissance Society of the University of Chicago, Theo van Doesburg. Paintings, Drawings, Photographs and Architectural Drawings, 1947, no. 41

(possibly) Cincinnati, Cincinnati Art Museum, Theo van Doesburg, 1947 

Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, The Morton G. Neumann Family Collection. Selected Works, 1980, no. 15, illustrated in the catalogue (titled Contra-Composition)

Minneapolis, Walker Art Center; Washington, D.C., The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum & Otterlo, Kröller-Müller Museum, De Stijl, Visions of Utopia, 1982, no. 57 (in Minneapolis & Washington, D.C.), no. 95 (in Amsterdam & Otterlo)

Washington, D.C., The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Dreams and Nightmares. Utopian Visions in Modern Art, 1983-84, no. 62, illustrated in colour in the catalogue (titled Contracomposition)

Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, Twentieth-Century Painting and Sculpture. Selections for the Tenth Anniversary of the East Building, 1989 (titled Contra-Composition)

Paris, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, La beauté exacte. Art Pays-Bas XXe siècle. De van Gogh à Mondrian, 1994, no. 12, illustrated in colour in the catalogue


Evert van Straaten, 'Theo van Doesburg', in De vervolgjaren van De Stijl 1922-1932, Amsterdam, 1996, discussed p. 40

Els Hoek (ed.), Theo van Doesburg, oeuvre catalogue, Utrecht, 2000, no. 737, illustrated in colour p. 392 (with diagonal measurements)

Catalogue Note

In the text to the catalogue of his first exhibition in 1908, Van Doesburg was described as ‘an artist sprung directly out of himself, someone en route from an obscure point of departure to an unknown place’ (Agnita Feis, ‘Inleiding’, in Tentoonstelling van teekeniningen en schetsen van Theo van Doesburg, Haagsche Kunstkring, The Hague, 1908). Almost a decade later he would emerge from this journey, founding the seminal magazine De Stijl, and the unknown place would be revealed as the very forefront of experimental, Modernist thought.

The origins of De Stijl began in 1915 when Van Doesburg came across the work of Piet Mondrian in one of the publications that he contributed to in his spare time whilst serving with the Dutch army. His response was immediate – he wrote: ‘Mondrian realizes the importance of line. The line has almost become a work of art in itself; one cannot play with it when the representation of objects perceived was all-important. The white canvas is almost solemn. Each superfluous line, each wrongly placed line, any colour placed without veneration or care, can spoil everything – that is, the spiritual’ (T. van Doesburg, in Eenheid, no. 283, 6th November 1915).

The two artists became correspondents and friends, exchanging ideas and discussing their vision for a movement that would liberate painting from the domination of sensory perception and articulate universal principles that would give a new spiritual dimension to art. This collaboration was consolidated by the founding of De Stijl in 1917. The magazine was a vehicle for the dissemination of their ideas and theories about art, arguing for a new ‘Neo-Plastic’ painting which would reject all representational reference in favour of purely abstract forms. Van Doesburg elaborated on this in his 1917 text Principles of Neo-Plastic Art, arguing that: ‘The visual artist can leave the repetition of stories, fairy-tales, etc, to poets and writers. The only way in which visual art can be developed and deployed is by revaluing and purifying the formative means. Painterly means are: colours, forms, lines and planes’ (T. van Doesburg, Principles of Neo-Plastic Art, New York, 1968, p. 280). 

In the 1920s van Doesburg created a series of pictures that perfectly exemplified his treatise, which he had further modified to include the idea of ‘Elementarism’. Elementarism called for his paintings to be turned at a forty-five degree angle so that they would appear in contrast with the horizontal-vertical axis of their architectural setting. These highly abstracted compositions, or Contra-Compositions, as he called them, exalted the primacy of the line and the simplicity of form. Sectioning off quadrants of his canvas with a few black lines and bands of primary colours, he 'cancels out' his compositional elements, plotting them in opposition to each other to create a 'formative harmony'. 

Contra-Composition VII embodies this radical philosophy and is a rare example of one of Van Doesburg’s fully-worked oil paintings, the majority of which are now in the collections of major international museums. The present composition closely relates to a sketch of the same title at Yale University Art Gallery. According to the catalogue raisonné, Contra-Composition VII is based on the seventh preliminary study from the publication Liber Veritatis. It is the fourth painting which came about in response to the studies in the Liber Veritatis and for this reason the artist also called this picture Contra-Composition IV. Van Doesburg wrote the following about this series: ‘On the one hand, the notion of 'counter-composition' is opposed to the classical, it is an 'abstract' notion of composition and plastic expression. On the other hand, counter-composition is opposed to the fact that fundamental structural elements of nature and architecture are predominant everywhere’ (quoted in Joost Baljeu, Theo van Doesburg, New York, 1974, p. 152).

Van Doesburg’s experience in the field of architecture carried over into the 'construction' of his paintings and axonometric drawings, which take on the dimensionality of architectural blue-prints. Van Doesburg also had specific ideas about the placement of his paintings within a given architectural setting, indicating on the back of the picture that a work should be hung at a forty-five degree angle, as in the case of the present work. In a photograph of the artist's studio from 1931, we can see the present painting propped against the wall before it was hung at a forty-five degree angle (fig. 3).