Updated: Apr 6
As a child, when I was at my grandparents' house, I was always intrigued by the mysterious portrait above the sofa. I tried to capture her gaze but to no avail. Who was she? All I was told was that she was my great-great-grandmother Betsy of Italian descent and that the world-famous Piet Mondrian painted her. I was absolutely not allowed to tell anyone about the latter. It was our family secret. Naturally, my grandparents didn't want any unexpected visitors - family or strangers - who might estrange the canvas.
Our family’s Mona Lisa, as we lovingly called her, remained a mystery to me. Until my grandmother decided to sell it after my grandfather's death a few years ago. The sale caused a national media storm, stating that “a new Mondrian was discovered”. Newspapers showed a 120-year-old picture of Mondrian posing before the portrait in his studio.
Book Cover - The Secret Portraits of Mondrian by Nick Draaijer
Because of the media attention, I learned new facts. The portrait had been painted on commission by my great-great-grandfather Cornelis “Cees” Bergman. He worked for and later owned a coffee trading business. It turned out that he was a friend and student of Mondrian and was one of his benefactors.
With the sale, the moment finally arrived to ask my grandmother who Betsy was. My family history suddenly came to life, a history that was beyond my wildest imagination. My grandmother was relieved that the veil of family secrecy was finally lifted, and she shared dozens of stories about my ancestors that had always been kept quiet. But they were only pieces of a puzzle, such as the fact that Cees was a Freemason or that former world-chess champion Max Euwe married into the family and safeguarded all family-owned Mondrian’s after Cees’ death. Or that several (distant) family members had been after my grandmother's painting.
My curiosity took over. How did my ancestors befriend the world-famous painter? What was their friendship like? What kind of man was Piet Mondrian? Who were my relatives? Did they own more Mondrian’s? Where do I come from?
Armed with these questions, I went to see the restored portrait at the Villa Mondrian museum, where it was on display at the time. She looked stunning and had been beautifully restored after some ugly mutilations that happened in the past. I bought and read Mondrian’s biography written by expert Hans Janssen. I reached out to him with my story. He replied that there was a folder about my family in the archives of the Dutch Institute for Art History. I made an appointment with curator Wietse Coppes to learn more.
Wietse showed me the folder, and after reviewing its contents, I decided to write a book about my discoveries and the story unfolding. I discovered that my family owned over twenty Mondrian’s, from figurative works to famous abstract paintings. I also learned about two more children's portraits, officially part of Mondrian’s catalogue. The oldest son of Cees and Betsy, Cornelis Jr., and their second daughter, Carolina. Both were painted around 1907. Historians didn’t know who the girl was, but I recognized her as the later wife of world chess champion Max Euwe. I didn’t share that I knew that my great-grandmother had also been portrayed as a child; I had seen that work many times before, but not many people outside our family have.
The discovered portraits. On the right: Nicolaas Bergman, by Piet Mondriaan in 1908. © Bergman familie archive, private collection. On the left: Elisabeth 'Bets' Bergman, by Piet Mondrian in 1907. © Waaning & Bergman family archives, private collection.
Multiple art historians tried to interpret the connection between Cees and Piet. The folder contained various family trees, excerpts from municipality registers, auction books mentioning family-owned Mondrian’s (apparently Max Euwe had sold everything - how did that happen?), and speculations about a possible relationship between Cees’ sister Anna and Piet Mondrian.
Art historian Marty Bax made most notes and scraps of research. I emailed her and requested a meeting. Marty came with even more exciting angles. For example, Cees’ grandfather, Cornelis over de Linden, was one of the authors of a curious manuscript: the Oera Linda Book. The book my grandmother was named after. I felt like a character in a book myself and had to unravel all those family stories and myths like a detective. Marty suggested that “all family archives need to be opened”. I had work to do.
The folder also contained letters written by Piet to Cees. There was also an archive kept by Cees’ sister Anna with more extracts of letters full of interesting insights from the world-famous painter.
This confirmed that Cees and Piet were friends, but how did they meet? I discovered that Cees’ best friend, Valentijn Bing, showed Mondrian around when he moved to Amsterdam in 1892. That was my starting point. In 1898, Cees bought his first painting by Mondrian, depicting a canal with the Westertoren in the background. In 1901 both men were members of the Amsterdam art society St. Lucas, the same year in which Mondrian painted the portrait of Betsy. So, they were certainly friends by then.
Back to the portraits. I already knew about a secret portrait depicting my great-grandmother, Bets, at four years old. But Cees and Betsy had six children, of whom at least one boy was old enough to be portrayed around 1908 before Mondrian left for Paris. I fervently hoped I would find him on my quest to unravel my past.
Every stone had to be turned. I had to speak to more relatives besides my grandmother, her remaining brother, and sisters. More perspectives were necessary from other branches of the family. I found my grandmother's cousins and met with them. I spoke to more art historians, art dealers, writers, and friends of the family. I scoured city archives and read countless books connected to the events of the art world in Amsterdam in the early 1900s. Furthermore, I read books about the Second World War, spirituality, freemasonry, and more.
After a long process of gaining trust and meeting the right freemasons, I gained access to the archives of the Dutch Freemason Guild. I found quotes from lectures held by my great-great-grandfather in the early 1900s – a perfect way to get to know him and how he looked at the world.
I dug up hundreds of photos and letters in the attics of relatives. Everyone became more enthusiastic and ready to share more with me. After all, it was our shared history.
After almost a year of research, I was surprised by the bond we formed. Then, one day, a family member handed me a photograph of a portrait of the fourth Bergman child: Nicolaas. A great moment, which I wanted to keep secret until the launch of my book The Secret Portraits of Mondrian. In the meantime, I found a publisher, Uitgeverij Pluim. Together we guarded the two “secret” and unknown paintings, just as my grandparents used to guard the portrait above their sofa.
Mondrian in his studio: © RKD, Simon Maris archives
We published the book around Mondrian's 150th birthday on 7 March 2022. Suddenly my discoveries, along with the two new portraits, became worldwide news. They can now be added to Mondrian’s catalogue of works.
The story stretched beyond the discovery of new Mondrian’s. I got to know my ancestors and learned about Piet Mondrian as a human being. Of course, enough had been written about his work, but what kind of friend was he, and what was his take on life? He had many friends and stayed in contact with Cees and Anna until his death. Cees often visited him in Paris, as I discovered in letters. Sometimes he came back with a new painting.
Mondrian loved going out and having women around but found it difficult to commit himself. He was not the hermit many people held him for, but he loved his art most of all. His development turned out to be full of chance encounters. His search for meaning and deep philosophical view resulted in an almost Utopian, harmonious worldview. That’s what he wanted to capture in his work.
Mondrian is not only known for his paintings, he also wrote a great deal, for example for the magazine De Stijl, which he co-founded with Theo van Doesburg. For years, he worked on a manuscript that he shared with a few confidants, including Cees and Anna. They commented on it, but the work, L'art nouveau, La vie nouvelle, never saw the light of day during his lifetime, no matter how much he wanted it. After his death, Anna tried to publish it but was thwarted by Mondrian's heir, the American Harry Holtzman from New York. It was finally published in the 1980s, and we came to understand the philosophy behind his work even better.
My book has become a story of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. My ancestors' choices have greatly influenced the lives of the following generations. I learned a lot from Cees and Piet: how to chase your dreams, what creativity and love mean, what art can teach you about yourself, and how to do your best to be a good person.
I realize now more than ever that stories have an unprecedented power to connect people. Family members have found each other again after decades through this story. Even now, when giving lectures, I still meet new family members and descendants of Cees and Betsy. All their living grandchildren were together for the first time at my book presentation, all in their eighties.
I invite you to ask your relatives about that one vase, that pocket watch, or that portrait. Who knows what you can discover about each other, yourself, and your past?
About the author:
Nick Draaijer has been publishing short stories and blogs since 2017. His short stories try to hold a mirror up to the reader. Since 2018, he has been working on a family history about the friendship between his great-great-grandfather Cees Bergman and painter Piet Mondrian: The Secret Portraits of Mondrian. The book was published by Uitgeverij Pluim on 3 March 2022.
Nick lives in Amsterdam and works as a freelance copywriter and is currently working on his first novel.
You can buy 'The Secret Portraits of Mondrian' by Nick Draaijer here.