Mark Rothko: Biography & Paintings

Instructor: Jennifer Keefe

Jennifer Keefe has taught college-level Humanities and has a Master's in Liberal Studies.

He's a Russian-born painter whose later works focused on color as their content. In this lesson, learn about the life and works of Mark Rothko. Then take a short quiz to test your knowledge.

Rothko's Life

Have the events of the world ever made you want to make a statement? For Russian-born painter Mark Rothko, a move to America in his early life, followed by his experiences during the Great Depression, made him want to paint a social statement about the world.

Mark Rothko c. 1949
Mark Rothko Picture

Marcus Rothkovich, who later shortened his name to Mark Rothko, was born to Jewish parents in 1903. They lived in a part of Russia that is now known as Latvia. In the early 1900s the political philosophy of Socialism began taking hold in Russia. Originally, there were many Jewish Russian Socialist leaders; over time, however, the group turned against the Zionists and Rothko's family decided to seek political asylum in America.

By 1913, Rothko, his parents, and his three older siblings were living in Portland, Oregon. His father died shortly after their arrival, leaving Mark to learn English and go to work at a very young age to help his family. He graduated from high school early and got a scholarship to Yale University, which he dropped out of in 1923.

Rothko then moved to New York and received art training from Max Weber, who also taught Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and other prominent 20th century artists. His early paintings included urban scenes and portraits. He was invited to show with fellow painters Lou Harris and Milton Avery in 1928. It was a big break in his career, considering he had only been painting for a few years. He began teaching painting to children in 1929, something he did to support himself during the Great Depression. He said working with children helped him in his own search for truth in painting.

Rothko married twice. His first marriage was in 1932 to Edith Sachar, a jewelry designer. He divorced Edith to marry Mary Alice Beistel in 1945. They had two children, one of whom would later publish a book Rothko had written called The Artist's Reality. It is believed the book was written in the 1940s when Rothko took a break from painting and read a lot of mythology and also existentialist works by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzche.

Rothko was plagued by depression most of his life and may have also had an undiagnosed bipolar disorder. He nearly died from an aortic aneurysm in 1968, an event that caused him to have a change of heart regarding the lack of positive remarks he had received from critics in the past. Instead of ignoring the critics, he came to resent them. Rothko committed suicide in 1970 by overdosing on antidepressants and slashing his own wrists.

The Ten and the WPA

By the middle of the 1930s, the economic devastation of the Great Depression was being felt in America. Rothko fell in with a group of fellow Russian-born painters who became known as The Ten. Despite its name, the group only had nine regular members, including Rothko, Joseph Solomon and Lou Schanker. A tenth member, Jack Kufeld, only showed with the group a few times. The group's main goal was to protest how literal painting had become during the Depression era. They had several showings, but their most well-known was when they showed their works together in protest of a government-sponsored art show at the Whitney Gallery in New York.

Eventually, though, Rothko ended up working for the Easel Division of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) by 1936, which was created by President Roosevelt's New Deal legislation. The goal of the WPA was, among other things, to provide funding for painters, musicians, and other artists to continue working during the Depression and to create works that would bring America back to a state of cultural normalcy in the wake of the financial devastation of the 1930s.

A Style of His Own

At this time, Rothko's works were best described as avant-garde, which was a style of painting that became popular in the early 20th century as a means of rebellion against traditional art forms. Rothko was also influenced by Surrealism and Expressionism. By the late 1940s, after taking a break from painting, Rothko became associated with the Abstract Expressionist movement. Abstract Expressionism was a style that, in the wake of World War II, relied upon emotion and bold splashes of color to create meaning within the artists' works. Well-known Abstract Expressionists included Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline, both of whom were action painters. Action painting was a technique that was meant to keep the eye of the viewer moving around the canvas constantly.

Rothko's Works

Instead of action painting, Rothko created a different kind of Abstract Expressionism, called Color Field painting, along with Clyfford Still and Barnett Newman. Instead of a focus on bold splashes of color that do nothing to guide you in viewing a work, Color Field painting relied on the formal elements of painting to create abstract works that seem to glow from within. Rothko used color, shape, depth, scale, composition, and balance to create two-dimensional paintings. Orange and Red on Red, was painted in 1957.

Orange and Red on Red, 1957
Orange and Red on Red Rothko

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