About Rothko and Tragedy


“Happy people have no story”, that must have been the inspiration for all of the paintings of Mark Rothko. In his mind an artist without a tormented soul had nothing to say and therefor nothing to paint. However at already quite a young age Rothko had already had his fair share of difficulties in life. His family emigrated in the 1920s’ from Russia to the United States. They were one of the many – discriminated Jewish – families that crossed the pond. So you can imagine that life was not easy for them.

It was clear that Rothko wanted to be a painter. He just could not decide what his style was. It had to be an artist who was inspired by human tragedy, that was clear. But did he want to be like Dadaism or Expressionism? Or something else? Also in other aspects of his life, Rothko was searching for his identity. He changed his name from Marcus Rothkowitz to Mark Rothko. He applied to Yale, got in and then dropped out.

But in the 1930s’ Rothko his tragedy happened. It was not a personal tragedy though. It was the American stock market that collapsed and took the entire economy down with it. The Roaring 20s’ were over and with Black Thursday (1929) the sober 1930s’ began. It might not have been the collapsing of the economy that inspired Rothko to paint his Subway Series, but the mood of the age is clear in the paintings. There were no happy, excited people waiting for the metro. In fact the paintings show the opposite. They show cold architectural structures with some empty people in.

'Rothko Subway Series', Ephemeral New York, 22 April 2013 (https://ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com/tag/rothko-subway-series/). Consulted on 15 September 2015.

In the 1940s’ an even bigger tragedy happened: Germany invaded Poland (1939). And even though Rothko was not found fit for the army, the images of the rise of national socialism did touch him. You must know, Rothko and his entire family were Jewish. That must have given an extra bitter dimension to the Second World War for him. The figures in Rothko his paintings became more abstract, almost mutilated as he felt that a humanlike figure could not express this kind of tragedy.

After the Second World War not all tragedies or conflicts were resolved. As a matter of fact when the Second World War ended, another war started: the Cold War. A lot of American boys and men left for VietnamAt that point Rothko did not experience a lot of unhappiness in his personal life. The prices of his paintings went through the roof in 1954. The moment he seemed to have found his ‘artistic identity’ people went crazy for his artworks.

In 1958 he got offered to paint murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan. He accepted the job, rented a space in an old gym and worked there for months and months in secret. You would think that if you get offered 2,5 million dollars to paint, you would finish the project, but Rothko didn’t. He just could not see his paintings hanging between the rich and famous dining in the restaurant, eating their lobsters.

Later Rothko his personal tragedy happened. He suffered from health issues and his second marriage seemed to be falling apart. Meanwhile art collectors and experts were not interested anymore in dark, deep pieces. Flashy and light pop art was the new black. All of this did not mean that Rothko his career was over. In 1965 he got the opportunity to install whatever he wanted in the Houston Chapel in Texas. He took that opportunity. But Rothko must still have been battling his own tragedy, because in 1970 the artist committed suicide. It may not be clear if Rothko was part of the group of happy people or unhappy people, but either way, he did have a story.

What happened to the nine paintings made for the Four Seasons?

It is possible to see the murals that were originally meant to hang in the Four Seasons. Nowadays they hang in Tate Modern, London. A curious and tragic detail is that the paintings arrived the same day Rothko took his own life.

If you think there were no more difficulties after the paintings arrived at the museum, you are wrong. In October 2012 the work ‘Black on Maroon’ was vandalized. They almost immediately caught the guy who did it, but that did not mean they could get the painting back to its original state.

For Bronwyn Ormsby and Rachel Barker a stressful period started. They had to figure out how to get the paint off the artwork and in order to figure that out, they had to know of what the ink that Rothko used, existed. On different samples different methods were used. It really was a process of trial and error. After almost two years of searching the scientists found a method to clean the mural. They did not just paint black, purple or red paint over the top. They really made the black scribblings dissolve without taking any paint of the original work with it.
'Black on Maroon', the painting that got vandalized.

How unfortunate the vandalizing of the painting was, without it we might have never known the consistency of Rothko his paint. Since he worked in secret on those murals in his rented space in an old gym, nobody really knew how he got to the concept. Nobody really knew how he worked. Some scholars stated that Rothko was so secretive about his work because he worked incredibly studied, but the examination of the paint shows actually the opposite: Rothko worked very intuitive. He poured paint together until he liked it, until it had some ‘emotion’.

Today the paintings are again displayed in Tate Modern, where they hang in a bad illuminated room. The bad lighting is not done to hide what is left over of the act of vandalism – but it does certainly help. The bad lighting was already done the day the paintings arrived. It adds to the somberness the murals convey.

Even if you know nothing about Rothko his life or motivation to paint, you will still feel a bit down when you look at the paintings. You will still feel some of the tragedy that inspired Rothko. And personally, I think that is what defines ‘art’: if you know nothing about the context or about the painter, and you still feel the intention of the artist.


SCHAMA, S., 'Black on Maroon', The Power of Art, BBC, 2006 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6T95r94eyzc). Consulted on 14 September 2015.

'Restoring Rothko', Tate (http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/video/restoring-rothko). Consulted on 15 September 2015.

If you would like to know more about the restoration of 'Black on Maroon', than you can check out this video:
Especially the technical aspects and difficulties are well explained.

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