van doesburg, rhythms of a russian dancer, 1918


Theo van Doesburg’s Rhythm of a Russian Dance was completed in June 1918. Through the use of only rectangles and simple colors, Doesburg is painting in his newly developed style named De Stijl which exemplifies the abstract style. The rectangles appear to be roughly sketched without use of a ruler, but painted in with care. Doesburg only uses primary colors in his piece in order to allow the piece to be in its simplest form.

When Doesburg founded the De Stijl movement, he wanted to deconstruct painting down to the simple shapes and colors. Rhythm of a Russian Dance reflects this ideal. In a series of rough breakdowns, Doesburg was able to simplify the figure to the basic level. By reducing paintings down to the simplest level, Doesburg is trying to remove art from the elitist stature and break away from old fashioned art forms such as still life and portraits. All across Europe and Russia there was an aura of change not only in art, but also politically and economically. The old- fashioned ways of painting were ostracized and instead replaced by unconventional methods of representing the image. De Stijl took the rather extreme approach of breaking down an image into its simplest parts and colors, namely rectangles and the primary colors. The De Stijl movement is similar to the other art movements of the time that focused more on to represent an image instead of focusing on the details.

The rectangles appear to be relatively straight, but on closer examination one can see the free-drawn nature of the lines. The four colors used for the rectangles are black, blue, red, and yellow and there seems to be no distinct pattern to a rectangle’s color. There is also an inconsistency of the intensity of the colors. This can especially be seen with the red and yellow rectangles which at times seem pink and pale yellow respectively. By reducing the colors to their simplest form Van Doesburg is able “to express the ideal spirituality of harmony and order…[with] pure abstraction and simplicity.”[1]

The rectangles are used vertically and horizontally to portray the Russian dancer. Overall, the rectangles provide an outline for the figure that has been broken down into the simplest form. There are no diagonal rectangles, generally used to represent movement, so the dancer appears to be stationary. As Nancy J. Troy points out, by not allowing the rectangles to intersect, van Doesburg created a active interplay between the dancer and his environment.[2] The horizontal rectangles are used represent the different levels of the body such as the waist and the neck. The vertical rectangles are used to represent height. The vertical rectangles often end adjacent to horizontal rectangle therefore connecting the different levels of the person.

The background shading for the work is composed with two simple colors, white and grey. The white area is found in the center of the painting whereas the grey is on the outside. Closer examination shows the white is always cut off at the end of a rectangle suggesting the white area represents the figure whereas the grey represents the background the where figure is imposed. The lines separating the white from the grey area are distinct and exact suggesting Doesburg carefully painted these sections in order to bring out the figure in the center of the piece. Overall, the contrast between the white and grey sections enables the figure to be seen much more clearly.

Rhythm of a Russian Dance successfully displays a figure by incorporating horizontal and vertical rectangles to display the height and different levels of the body while using a white and grey shading to further highlight the figure. The piece fits into the De Stijl style of simple shapes and colors and helps characterize the change taking place in European and Russian art during this time period.




Mendez, Adrian. “Modern Art Encyclopedia.” Last modified Spring 2011. Accessed March 2, 2012.

Troy, Nancy, “Figures of Dance in De Stijl,” The Art Bulletin 66, no. 4 (1984): 648,


[1] Nancy Troy, “Figures of Dance in De Stijl,” The Art Bulletin 66, no. 4 (1984): 648,

[2] Adrian Mendez, “De Stijl,” Modern Art Encyclopedia, 2011,

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