Spirituality and religion had always pervaded the life of Mark Rothko. He was born Marcus Rothkovich on
September 25, 1903 in . He attended Cheder, a school where young Jewish boys studied Hebrew and the scriptures. Although his family was not actively religious before his birth, after Rothko was born his father began to strictly follow the Jewish religion and that is how the young Rothko was brought up. Dvinsk was part of the Pale of Settlement in Dvinsk, Russia , an area where the Russian Jews were designated to live. A constant reminder of his religion was the ever-present threat that the Jews were under by the Russian soldiers who would rape and murder the people of the Pale solely for the reason that they were Jewish. The persistent threat of bodily harm or worse, death, must have left Rothko with his inner self as the only place to find refuge. Russia
By 1912, his whole family had made it to
and settled in America . Sadly, Rothko was bullied and antagonized for being a Jew at his new American school where he had come in hopes of fleeing such persecution. Further devastation came in 1913 when Rothko's father died. The whole family then had to go to work including the young Rothko who later in life would say that during his childhood he had never had the time to learn how to play. Again with no sanctuary to be found in the outside world Rothko would have had to turn inward to look for peace. Portland, Oregon
Things started to look up for a short time when Rothko won a scholarship to Yale University in 1921 but six months later his scholarship was withdrawn with whispers that anti-Semitism was the reason. That was yet another strike against him due to his religion, his spiritual beliefs. From his birth he had spent his energy fighting repression and prejudice. The unfortunate and tragic events of his developing years had a profound influence in shaping his adult personality.
After Yale he headed to
but left for a short while in 1924 to go back to New York City for a few months to study acting. After he returned to Portland he went to meet a friend who was taking a class at the Art Student's League. While he watched the class sketch a nude female model is when he "decided that was the life for me." Rothko eventually started taking classes at the Art Student's League. He took a life drawing class taught by George Bridgman for two months and then studied under Max Weber, a fellow Russian born Jew, for six months. New York
Weber often drew from Jewish themes which possibly influenced Rothko's later works. Perhaps from the idea of expressing spiritual concepts through non-figurative art came to Rothko through the Jewish religion since they do not allow God to be portrayed in art. Weber also made this statement about his art in 1915, "not what I see with my eye but with my consciousness . . . mental impressions, not mere literal matter-of-fact copying of line and form. I want to put the abstract into concrete terms." Weber must have spoken about his ideas to his students during his classes and this would have made quite an impression on a young artist just beginning his training.
The only formal art training that Rothko received was the time he studied under Weber and Bridgman, although Rothko would always claim that he was a self-taught artist. His claims of having no formal training may have stemmed from his childhood. He was more than likely proud of having always done everything for himself while facing opposition so he must have gotten used to the image of a completely self-made man. However, attending classes in life drawing and still life cannot truly be called any type of complete artistic education so his claims lean more to small exaggerations than to actual lies.
By 1928 Rothko settled into the lifestyle of an aspiring
artist and he had no choice but to take on small odd jobs to support himself. He took various illustrating jobs and also did some work making signs. It was this same year that he exhibited in a group show at the Opportunity Gallery in New York City . Unfortunately it was also the same year as a losing lawsuit for Rothko. Rothko had sued Lewis Browne, a rabbi for whom he had been doing illustrations, for incomplete payment and no credit for the work. Rothko lost and to add insult to injury had to pay Browne's court costs. Additionally, he was portrayed unfavorably by the press. It was another loss in a life, thus far, full of losses. New York
The next decade of Rothko's life would be no less tumultuous than the first two.
He would become friends with Milton Avery and Adolph Gottlieb and would meet and marry his first wife, Edith Sachar. He would have his first one man show at the Contemporary Arts Gallery in
. It was also a time of turmoil throughout the world with the Great Depression, the rise of the Nazi Party and anti-Semitism in New York Europe and the culmination of this in World War II.
Rothko was still painting figures during this time period but we can see how he started moving towards abstraction. His Self-Portrait (fig.1) of 1936 is still a completely figurative style that is only very slightly abstracted. Rothko did some work depicting scenes of the New York City subway, the subject of which may have been influenced by Max Weber's cubist scenes of New York.(fig.2) In his Entrance to Subway (fig.3) of 1938 the figures have become more abstracted, some have no facial features and there is no shading like in the Self-Portrait. Though it is not a cubist painting Rothko may have been somewhat inspired by Weber's
1913. Rothko uses similar blues and yellows and starts going slightly more abstract. There are more flat planes of color, especially in the columns, floor and far wall. There is even the hint of Rothko's mature compositions visible in this subway scene. The composition is based on squares and verticals. Although, at this point in his career he had still not found his voice as an artist, there are the seeds of the future visible in this work. New York
In the 1940's Rothko's work went in a different direction. He started to paint images that were abstracted and had symbolic meanings. The titles of the works during this time period often have to do with Greek mythology. These works also look to be Surrealist-inspired. It is evident that Rothko was looking at Miro and De Chirico in particular but also the Surrealist philosophy in general. Since they strove to portray the subconscious this would have interested Rothko, especially at this time in his career when he was still floundering a bit as to what was his style and exactly what it was that he wanted to say with his work. Surrealism may have resided in the same general area that interested Rothko but it was not the exact location of his destination.
Rothko was interested in classic Greek literature and in the Greek and Roman rooms at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. In The Omen of the Eagle (fig.4) of 1942 Rothko was inspired by Aeschylus' Oresteia trilogy, a Greek tragedy. He had hoped to portray the "spirit of myth" rather than any specific scene from the plays. Though it seems he pulled part of the idea for this piece from the first play of the trilogy, Agamemnon. It is not surprising that Rothko identified with Greek tragedies during that time of war. With horror stories in the news daily it was only be natural that his art was affected. He stated, "It was with the utmost reluctance that I found the figure could not serve my purposes....But a time came when none of us could use the figure without mutilating it." Rothko must have been hit especially hard after witnessing prejudice and violence against Jews firsthand.
The Omen of the Eagle depicts three mask like faces across the top of the canvas which are representative of Greek theatrical masks. Underneath there are two birdlike heads. They are from the Agamemnon play in which two eagles attack a pregnant hare and consume her unborn offspring. Underneath that there are organic shapes that look like arches and on the bottom of the canvas there are several human feet. The interesting thing about this painting is the composition. It is set up virtually the same as his Untitled of 1949. They are both sectioned of into four stacked vertical rectangles. Even though it is still a subjective painting, it is quite obvious that he has an affinity with this compositional design which eventually becomes his signature style.
This compositional preference is also evident in
Gethsemane (fig.5) done in 1944. Here Rothko has veered away from the mythological themes that had been prevalent in his work for the past several years and went with the biblical. We can see that he always had a concern for the otherworldliness from mythology to religion to spirituality, there was always the underlying theme of not being of this earth. Gethsemane was the garden that was the location of the agony and betrayal of Christ. Betrayal is something that Rothko had felt throughout his life and with betrayal comes a feeling of loneliness and mistrust of all others besides the betrayer. This painting was done soon after he separated from Edith Sachar so Rothko could certainly have empathized with any story of betrayal and loneliness. It could, perhaps, also be a reference to the persecution of the Jews during World War II which was going on at that time. This was likely considering that at this time artists were being encouraged to abandon "art for art's sake" and to make more political art in support of the Allied troops.
The painting depicts a bird-like figure in the center of the canvas. The figure stands in the position of a cross which refers to Christ and the garden which this piece is named for. One of the feet of the figure is on the ground and looks like a pedestal for a sculpture. The other leg is bent and up in the air. On one wing there is a circular object being held up and under the other wing there is an organic, unrecognizable shape. A dark cloud-like form floats above the bird figure. Rothko used greys, faded oranges and yellows as his color scheme and as mentioned above the composition is divided horizontally into thirds.
The year after Rothko completed
Gethsemane things started looking better. Only six months after his divorce from Edith and exclamation of, "Marriage is an impossible situation for an artist to engage in," Rothko married his second wife Mary Alice Beistle, known as Mell. Unlike Edith, Mell was prepared to do everything to emotionally support her husband and his work. She gave him the upper hand in their relationship and a friend of hers said it had been, "hero-worship," on Mells' part. This is what would prove to suit Rothko the best. He had often been described as an opinionated man who was not the easiest person to get along with so a marriage with an agreeable woman turned out to work for him. A few years later, in 1947, Rothko had a one man show at the Parsons Gallery in and signed a contract with Betty Parsons making her his dealer. Now, with a stable personal and professional life Rothko was free to pour everything he could into his painting. New York City
Soon after his marriage to Mell, Rothko started to associate with Clyfford Still and not long after that his work went completely abstract. Rothko spoke very highly of Still's works and they likely inspired his move to total abstraction. We can see in his Untitled of 1947 and his Number 1 (Untitled) of 1948 (figs. 6&7) that Rothko is finally growing into his style. Although his shapes are softer and meld into each other in a way that Still's do not, it is likely that the spark that set him off came in part, came from Still. Rothko had, in fact, stated to Katherine Kuh that Still had been a, "tremendous influence in his thinking and in giving him courage."
Number 1(Untitled) can represent the end of Rothko's younger development and the first step into his mature phase. The color scheme is made up of mostly orange, yellow and peach with much smaller areas of blue, brown and white. He started using large blocks of color that have the signature Rothko edges. The edges are often feathery and soft yet they do not quite blend into the next color. In his Untitled of 1947 he also used large expanses of color and a similar color scheme.
Rothko had finally broken free of the restraints of the figurative. With these new paintings he could say what words and figures could not. Along with the figure Rothko also abandoned giving his works titles. His works all became simply 'Untitled' or were numbered or named for the colors that were on the canvas. This too was freeing. It did not lock up the meaning of the work with a name. Suddenly there were no words for his paintings; they went beyond words; they reached onto a new level of meaning.
Rothko seemed to struggle with the meanings of his own works, he once wrote:
"Pictures must be miraculous: the instant one is completed, the intimacy between
the creation and the creator is ended. He is an outsider. The picture must be for him,
as for anyone experiencing it later, a revelation, am unexpected and unprecedented
resolution of an eternally familiar need."
This statement brings to mind a shaman or some type of oracle, who, when in a frenzied religious state feels the touch of the gods, but after such a vision is suddenly awake and back in the real world with the laypeople. Rothko implied that while an artist is painting there is such a total connection between the painter and the work it is liken to a trancelike state but when he is done painting he returns to his conscious normal life. The artist becomes shut out of the divine moments of creation and now has to look at the image as anyone else would through eyes that cannot quite comprehend what the image is trying to say. They can only gaze with awe and realize a vague feeling that there is something more being said here that they cannot quite grasp. Art critic Peter Schjeldahl put this idea a slightly different way when he said that Rothko's paintings, "deepen and fortify the connection, the circuit, of color to inner experience. The messages that travel this circuit may be unclear, but they arrive." They certainly do arrive, almost with a jolt, to the viewer.
After 1949 Rothko started his two or three stacked rectangle compositions which is what he would most often produce for the rest of his life. He often worked in yellows, oranges and reds during this time. These "happy" colors may possibly have been used because it was a rather pleasant and stable time in Rothko's life. His and Mell's finances were somewhat stable as Rothko started a teaching job at
, they were still happily married and in 1950 they spent a leisurely vacation in Brooklyn College Europe where his daughter, Kate, was conceived. She was born in December of that same year.
We can observe the orange, red and yellow color scheme and the stacked rectangle compositions in Untitled, #73 and No. 5/No. 22, (figs. 9-11) all done between 1950 and 1952. The colors are rich and vibrant in these paintings. In a manifesto written by Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb to the New York Times they claimed that they were, "for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth." Although these paintings are composed of large rectangles they do not really seem flat due to the visible brush strokes and varying thickness of the applied paint. They do, however, seem to reveal a type of profound truth that the viewer may not quite be able to place their finger on. The shapes seem to flicker and move like a flame. They truly draw the viewer in and suggest that this image is an actual place a spiritual land that calls to people to come and meditate upon. Rothko made this statement that was printed in Tiger's Eye magazine about his works during this period, "The progression of a painter's work, as it travels in time from point to point, will be toward clarity." This is the destination Rothko wanted to reach - clarity, enlightenment or at least an inner peace.
In the early 1950's Rothko's work started to be shown worldwide including at the
in Museum of Modern Art . Even though recognition of his work was growing in 1954, due to poor sales of his paintings, Rothko decided to leave the Parsons Gallery. He signed a contract with Sidney Janis who also represented Jackson Pollock. As his paintings began to sell and more opportunities to show his work opened up Rothko started becoming difficult. He would refuse to have his paintings shown in certain places and even admonished Milton Avery for not being "selective enough" in where he let his work be shown. He refused to have any of his pieces in the Whitney Annual or to submit his works to the purchasing committee citing in a letter to the director that he did not think the life and meaning of his work would be maintained at the museum. Perhaps the bold colors he used in paintings of this time paralleled the boldness and confidence he began to feel as an artist. New York
In 1957 Rothko's color scheme changed. "I can only say that the dark pictures began in 1957 and have persisted almost compulsively to this day," Rothko said of his paintings of the time. In his two paintings, No. 16 (Red, Brown and Black) and No. 37/No. 19 (Slate Blue and Brown on
Plum) (figs. 12-13) both from 1958 we can see the darkening of his palette. He started using deep maroons, browns, black and dull blues, quite a change from the palette he had been using just a few years earlier. These pieces still have the same depth as his brighter pieces but the colors bring about a more somber feeling, a stillness that envelopes the viewer. There is an almost primal aura surrounding these two paintings, perhaps due to the earthiness of the colors. This was, perhaps intentional as he once wrote that, "Our art seems inevitably to stem from African fetishes." It would not be surprising if he had been contemplating these spiritual objects while working on these paintings in his studio.
The year that Rothko started making these paintings was the same year that the income from his works tripled in price. His dealer, Sidney Janis, stated that Rothko was, "a very difficult person…That difficulty magnified as he became more recognized." The more success that Rothko enjoyed the more he questioned his artwork. As his paintings began to be hung on the walls of rich collector's
Park Avenue apartments he started to think that maybe his pieces were only decorative. It seemed there was an overall darkening of the way Rothko felt. If he was trying to make a spiritual, other-worldly statement with his paintings it must have angered him to see that his works were being bought as investments or because he was the latest trend in the art world.
It was not only mental anguishes that afflicted Rothko but physical ailments as well. He was diagnosed with gout but did not take very good care of himself. He was gaining weight and it was also discovered that he was drinking every day. According to Elaine de Kooning, one day when she visited Rothko's studio he offered her a drink at ten in the morning. She declined and he told her he had one drink an hour all day long. These events certainly contributed to his paintings going dark.
By the late 1950's Rothko was receiving a significant amount of commercial success. He was commissioned to do a series of murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in the
on Seagram Building Park Avenue in . He was also given total artistic freedom in creating whatever he wanted. Rothko worked on these large-scale paintings with the idea of ruining the appetites of the rich patrons who would be dining at such an opulent restaurant. He had an idea of wanting to achieve the same effect that Michelangelo had achieved in the Laurentian Library in New York . He wanted the viewers to feel trapped in the room and completely enveloped by his paintings. He put many months of work into these murals and when they were not too far from completion he and Mell went to eat lunch at the Four Seasons. That same night he decided his paintings would not be hung there and decided to return the money from the commission. Florence
The murals continue with his darkened palette. (fig. 14) They are done in reds, maroons, muted blacks, and purples. The size of these pieces would cause the viewer to be awestruck. There is also a primitive overtone in these pieces. It brings to mind ancient times. They could well have been painted on the wall of a cave for ritualistic purposes. During the time he was working on these murals he visited
and saw the murals at the House of Mysteries. (fig. 15) He later said he had felt , "a deep affinity," with the wall paintings at the House of Mysteries. There is a subtle, visceral connection between his murals and ancient times. Pompeii
Rothko continued his signature style into the 1960's. His work never really varied from his now well known style and, with Pop Art and Minimalism now becoming the new darlings of the art world, Rothko would start to question his ability as an artist. He started to wonder if his art had meaning. His health was starting to deteriorate yet he was still able to impregnate forty-one year old Mell when he was one month away from his sixtieth birthday. His life was filled with uncertainty and unexpected events and this seemed to wear on his confidence.
His palette seemed to go all over the place in the 60's. He did some canvases in blacks, grays and browns and often did not have the floating rectangles but just blocks of color that reached the edges of the canvas. Untitled (Brown and Gray) 1969, (fig.16) is an example of this. But it seems that by this time Rothko had lost something. This piece seems more like a barren landscape than a spiritual plane. There is still an other-worldly atmosphere but it feels empty and lonely and leaves the viewer cold. It does not bring about any type of meditative comfort that his earlier works did.
Rothko may have also felt that his works were going flat because he went back to his bright reds and oranges of the early 50's. (fig. 17) He could have been trying to recapture whatever his pieces had lost through commercialism and success. It is hard to create spiritual images when one knows that it is just going to be bought and sold like any other commercial object. As his works lost their profound mystery was when he became more difficult to deal with.
Rothko once stated, "it would be good if little places could be set up all over the country, like a little chapel where the traveler or wanderer could come for an hour to meditate on a single painting hung in a small room, and by itself." Rothko had his wish granted in 1965 when he was commissioned to do a set of murals for a chapel in
by the de Menil family. (figs. 18&19) The chapel painting were not all done by Rothko's hand he had help from studio assistants, partially due to health issues. The chapel and paintings seem to have been somewhat inspired by the Minimalist movement. The chapel has no decoration of any type. The architecture is simple with white walls and gray, cement-looking ceilings. The murals are large, dark and monochromatic. There are benches that let the viewer sit and stare into the void that the painting creates. They are made to meditate upon, the whole chapel is conducive to pondering the spiritual yet they are solemn. Like the private devotional altarpieces of the Renaissance these works are there to assist the viewer in his quest for enlightenment. Houston
Unfortunately Rothko would never see the finished chapel. The paintings were done but he never got the chance to install them in the chapel himself because he committed suicide before the completion of the chapel. On
February 25, 1970 Rothko's assistant, Oliver Steindecker, found him dead of a self-inflicted razor slashes to his forearms; he bled to death. The man who had once stated that the recipe for a work of art should include, "a clear preoccupation with death - intimations of mortality," now strengthened this aspect in his own artwork through his own suicide. He may have thought that dying would give more meaning to his later works.
His suicide could have been due to his failing health or his drinking. His marriage was failing and he felt his work was becoming commercialized. It could have been that the pain he had experienced in his life had finally overwhelmed him. It may have been a combination of many things but what was likely a deciding factor for him was his own questioning of his artwork. It may have been too much for him to take when he began to wonder if he was a fraud for allowing his work to be commercially successful. Someone that cared so much about his art, who had turned down sales to museums if he did not think his pieces would have been displayed in a serious enough manner, would not be able to handle the thought that his art was meaningless. His art was his life. It was what kept going. If he could no longer create works full of profound meaning than he could not find those moments of inner peace. The act of painting could no longer be a spiritual experience. With no respite from the turmoil in his life he looked to the only escape, the only relief he could think of and took his own life.
 Lee Seldes, The Legacy of Mark Rothko, (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1978), 11.
 Seldes, 11.
 Seldes, 10.
 James E. B. Breslin, Mark Rothko: a Biography, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 7.
 Seldes, 11.
 Seldes, 11.
 Jeffrey A. Kottler, Divine Madness: Ten Stories of Creative Struggle, (
: Jossey-Bass, 2006), 58. San Francisco
 Seldes, 12.
 Seldes, 12.
 Seldes, 15.
 Breslin, 55.
 Breslin, 55.
 Dore Ashton, About Rothko, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983) 11.
 Breslin, 60.
 Metmuseum.org, Collection Records, http://www.metmuseum.org/Works_of_Art/viewOne.asp?dep=21&viewMode=1&item=1975%2E321, Accessed [online] October 17, 2007.
 Ashton, 19.
 Breslin, 91.
 Breslin, 69.
 Breslin, 70.
 Breslin, 81.
 Breslin, 91.
 John Golding, Paths to the Absolute: Mondrian, Malevich, Kandinsky, Pollock, Newman, Rothko and Still, (
Princeton: Press, 2000), 160. Princeton University
 Golding, 159.
 Golding, 159.
 Breslin, 218.
 Anna C. Chave, Mark Rothko: Subjects in Abstraction, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 56.
 Breslin, 221.
 Breslin, 232.
 Breslin, 221.
 Breslin, 223.
 Mark Rothko, Writings on Art, (
: New Haven Press, 2006), 59. Yale University
 Chave, 121.
 Breslin, 245.
 Breslin, 286.
 Breslin, 246.
 Breslin, 298.
 Breslin, 298
 Breslin, 303.
 Breslin, 302.
 Breslin, 328.
 Rothko, 31.
 Breslin, 334.
 Breslin, 340.
 Breslin, 363.
 Breslin, 364.
 Breslin, 373.
 Christopher Grunenberg, Tate Modern Collection Displays, Rothko, Room 3. Accessed
December 6, 2007, [Online] http://www.tate.org.uk/servlet/CollectionDisplays?roomid=3543.
 Breslin, 405.
 Breslin, 4.
 Breslin, 431.
 Breslin, 376.
 Breslin, 459.
 Breslin, 470.
 Breslin, 474.
 Breslin, 522.
 Rothko, 125.
 Breslin, 543.