United States • 1903−1970
Mark Rothko (born Marcus Rothkowitz, September 25, 1903, Dvinsk, Vitebsk Governorate, Russian Empire, now Daugavpils, Latvia - February 25, 1970, New York City, U.S.) was an American artist from the family of Russian Jews. He is recognized as one of the "holy trinity" of Abstract Expressionism (along with Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kuning). Despite the phenomenal demand for his art within his lifetime, the artist was tortured by depression, tobacco and alcohol addictions. At the peak of his career, he committed suicide by taking an overdose of anti-depressants and slashing his arms with a razor blade. He is known as one of the lawmakers of Color Field painting.

Attributes of Mark Rothko`s artwork. Having started with relatively traditional painting, under the influence of European Surrealists, he was carried away by creating abstract scenes inspired by ancient Greek myths. Highly influenced by Nietzsche, Greek mythology, and his Russian-Jewish heritage, Rothko's art was profoundly imbued with emotional content that he articulated through a range of styles that evolved from figurative to abstract art.

Rothko's early figurative artworks - including landscapes, still lifes, figure studies, and portraits - demonstrated the ability to blend such art movements as Expressionism and Surrealism. By the beginning of the 1950s, he has finally felt his signature style: ragged rectangular forms on the colored fields, which employed shimmering color to convey a sense of spirituality. His works began to be in great demand, putting Rothko in the top ten of the most highly paid artists of his time.

Mark Rothko supported the social revolutionary ideas of his youth throughout his life. In particular, he was all for the artists' total freedom of expression, which was compromised by the market, as he felt it. This belief often put him at odds with the art world establishment, leading him to publicly respond to critics and occasionally refuse the commissions, sales and exhibitions.

Famous paintings of the artist: «Orange, Red, Yellow», «Red on Maroon», «Entrance to Subway», «White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose)», «No. 10», « No. 61 (Rust and Blue)».

A Boy from an Intelligent Family

Mark Rothko grew up in a multilingual environment: Russian and Yiddish were the languages of communication in the family. Soon the boy had to learn English, which he would speak until the end of his life. He was the fourth child born to Jacob and Anna Rothkovich. As Russia was a hostile environment for Zionist Jews, Jacob immigrated to the United States with his two older sons in 1910, finally sending for the rest of his family in 1913. They settled in Portland, Oregon. But the reunion was short-lived: just a few months later, Jacob died of cancer. This tragedy was the first in a series of the events that would torture the soul of a sensitive and emotional artist throughout life.

Rothko was forced to go to work when he was very young. It resulted in a lingering sense of bitterness over his lost childhood. He graduated early from Lincoln High School, showing more interest in music than visual art. He was awarded a scholarship to Yale University, but soon found the environment at Yale conservative and exclusionary; so he left the university without graduating in 1923.

After leaving Yale, Mark Rothko made his way to New York City, as he put it, "to bum about and starve a bit." He studied in the Parsons New School for Design, where one of his instructors was the artist Arshile Gorky, American avant-garde painter of Armenian origin. Over the next few years, he had taken odd jobs before he enrolled Max Weber's still life and figure drawing classes at the Art Students League. According to Rothko, this was the beginning of his life as an artist. Rothko's early works were mostly portraits, nudes, and images of urban scenes.

By the mid-1930s, the effects of the Great Depression were being felt throughout American society, and Rothko had become concerned with the social and political implications of mass unemployment. Working in the Easel Division of the Works Progress Administration, Rothko met many other artists, yet he felt most at ease with a group that consisted mainly of other Russian Jewish painters. This group, which included such figures as Adolph Gottlieb, Joseph Solman and John Graham, showed together at Gallery Secession in 1934, and became known as "The Ten".

His pictures in the 1930s were influenced by Expressionism, featuring the claustrophobic urban scenes often rendered in acidic colors (such as Entrance to Subway (1938). However, in the 1940s, he got influenced by Surrealism and abandoned Expressionism for more abstract imagery which spliced human, plant and animal forms likened to the archaic symbols to render the emotions hidden in ancient myths. Mark Rothko came to see the mankind as locked in a mythic struggle with one`s free will and nature.

Throughout this time, Rothko's personal life was shadowed by his severe depression, and likely an undiagnosed bipolar disorder. In 1932, he married jewellery designer Edith Sachar, but divorced her in 1945 to marry Mary Alice Beistel, with whom he would have two children.

While Rothko tends to be grouped with Newman and Still as one of the three chief inspirers of Color Field painting, Rothko's artwork underwent many abrupt and clearly defined stylistic shifts. The decisive shift came in the late 1940s, when he began creating the prototypes for his best-known works. They were called the "multiforms" (art critics used this term to define Mark Rothko’s art style): figures were entirely banished, and the compositions were dominated by the multiple soft-edged blocks of colors which seemed to float in space.

Multiforms and the color field painting

The tragedy of World War II seems to have had the irreversible consequences for the fragile psyche of the artist. His dream (not destined to be realized) would be to paint a series of canvases for the museum dedicated to the Holocaust. Throughout his life, in most of his works, he sought to express the depth of despair and horror before the deeds of the humanity.

In the early 1950s, Mark Rothko, along with his second wife Mary Alice Beistel, who was 19 years younger, embarked on a tour across Europe. The Medici library in Florence, designed by Michelangelo, the originals of the works of his favorite painters - Rembrandt, Turner and Matisse - would be a source of the artist`s inspiration for many years.

But the turning point occurred in the Museum of Modern Art in New York , where Rothko would solidify in front of Matisse's Red Studio for hours. "When you look at this painting, you become that color, you are absolutely saturated with it," he explained.

The stunning influence of color was the impetus to the artist's experiments with the color fields, or the multiforms. Gradually, Rothko`s style has been crystallized to the one put into the history of American abstract art under his name (1, 2, 3, 4).

Mark Rothko never tried to create works that would look ideal in residential interiors and be sold. In spite of everything, he managed to fit into the conjuncture almost against his own will. The fashion for the carefree Pop Art in the 1950s together with the psychedelic revolution of the 1960s, have formed a stormy demand for the vivid, and sometimes acidic, paintings by Rothko. His fees began to grow like mushrooms after the rain. Rockefeller purchased one of his paintings, and the galleries vied for the right to host the artist`s solo exhibition.

Late Period

In 1964, Mark Rothko received a large commission from the major Houston art collectors and philanthropists, John and Dominique de Menil. He was to create large wall murals for a non-denominational chapel they were sponsoring on the campus of St. Thomas Catholic University where Dominique was the head of the Art Department. He generated fourteen paintings while working closely with a number of architects to construct a meditative environment in a dark palette.

Rothko's method was to apply a thin layer of binder mixed with pigment directly onto uncoated and untreated canvas and to paint significantly thinned oils directly onto this layer, creating a dense mixture of overlapping colors and shapes. His brushstrokes were fast and light, a method he would continue to use until his death.

The interesting fact is that Rothko used several original techniques that he tried to keep secret even from his assistants. Electron microscopy and ultraviolet analysis conducted by the MOLAB showed that he employed natural substances such as egg and glue, as well as artificial materials including acrylic resins, phenol formaldehyde, modified alkyd, and others. One of his objectives was to make the various layers of the painting dry quickly, without mixing of colors, so that he could soon create new layers on top of the earlier ones.

In 1968, Rothko suffered an aortic aneurys, this brush with death would shadow him for the rest of his life. He became resentful that his work was not being paid the proper respect and reverence he felt it deserved. He also began to worry that his art would have no major legacy, and this led him to work on his last major series, Black on Grays, which included twenty-five canvases and marked a clear deviation from his previous work.

However, this work failed to buoy up his spirits, and one morning, his assistant Oliver Steindecker found him dead on the floor of the bathroom, covered in blood. Many of his friends were not surprised that he took his own life, saying that Mark Rothko, «had lost his passion and inspiration».

Author: Liliya Lytvyn
Go to biography


View all publications


All exhibitions of the artist
View all artist's artworks
Whole feed