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Like father, like son: Mark Rothko as a successor of Rembrandt, Monet, Matisse and other great artists

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Behind any artist, even the most avant-garde one, there are the spirits of the great creators of the past. In the evolution of painting, this inheritance can be traced by the opposite tack. Impressionists refused to be similar to the representatives of realistic art. Expressionists, in turn, found Impressionists too sentimental and impotent. Each subsequent movement, even though it wasn’t a mocker of the previous one, in some way absorbed the achievements of previous generations. It is hard to believe, but even in the non-objective paintings by Mark Rothko, one could feel the influence of the artists of the past.

Michelangelo Buonarroti

Quite an unexpected beginning, isn’t it? One of the leading abstractionists really was a passionate admirer of the Old Masters. In order to experience the heritage of the Renaissance artists first-hand, he repeatedly traversed the Atlantic ocean and made a pilgrimage to the ancient chapels and palaces, the walls of which were touched by the hands of the legendary Italian painters.
Michelangelo Buonarroti. Self-portrait on the wall of the Sistine chapel
Rothko Mark. The sacrificial moment
  • Michelangelo. Self-portrait in the Sistine Chapel (Saint Bartholomew, the detail of the Last Judgement).
  • Mark Rothko, the Sacrificial Moment
Rothko called his beloved Renaissance "a century when mutual understanding between the artist and the world seemed to be impeccable."
During the famous trial of Mark Rothko’s children against the Marlborough Gallery, having taken possession of hundreds of the artist’s paintings for a mere song, several pages of the verdict were devoted to the evidence of experts on the value of the artist’s paintings both in financial terms, and in terms of their importance for art in general.

Two of those experts — Professor of Art History at the University of California, Curator of the Department of Painting and Sculpture Exhibitions at MoMA Peter Selz, as well as art historian and author of several books about contemporary painting, Robert Goldwater — compared Rothko with Michelangelo in their testimony. Professor Selz even noted that Rothko’s paintings had something in common with the plot of Annunciation, traditional for the Renaissance.

Michelangelo Buonarroti. The creation of the luminaries and planets
  • Michelangelo. The Creation of the Stars and the Planets
  • Mark Rothko. Untitled
Rothko Mark. Black on Burgundy
  • Vestibule of the Laurentian Library executed to Michelangelo's design
  • Mark Rothko. The Black on Maroon
Rothko himself made no secret that the source of inspiration for the creation of the ill-fated Seagram cycle was his visiting The Laurentian Library, built in Florence according to Michelangelo’s design. He was particularly impressed by the staircase, creating a claustrophobic sense of isolation in time and space. Rothko tried to achieve the same effect with his panels (which he refused to deliver) for the Four Seasons restaurant.

Rembrandt van Rijn

It is well-known that Mark Rothko called Rembrandt his favourite artist and, according to the artist’s friends, even considered the great Dutchman a kind of his "alter ego", finding in his work a lot of things he could relate to. Not only Rembrandt’s paintings but also his very life was Rothko’s source for analogies: both of them were the fourth sons in poor families and the only ones among the children who showed obvious talent.

The artists' relatives sought to give them an excellent education, considering them the hope of the family: indeed, the young Rembrandt entered the University of Leiden, one of the best at that time in the Netherlands, and Mark Rothko, thanks to his brilliant abilities, was a scholarship holder at Yale University. Both of them, after studying for a very short time, abandoned Leiden and Yale, fled to Amsterdam and New York, respectively, with the sole purpose of devoting themselves to art, and never regretted the fatal and risky change of life. Both have always been distinguished by the quarrelsome temper and uncompromising nature that lead to conflicts with customers.
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. Woman bathing in a stream (Hendrickje Stoffels?)
  • Rembrandt. Fixed size image thumbnail A Woman bathing in a Stream (Hendrickje Stoffels?)
  • Mark Rothko. Nude.
However, of course, this is not the only thing. Both in Rembrandt 's worldview and his very technique, there was something Rothko could relate to. Firstly, the understanding of the tragedy of earthly existence, the acute experience of human loneliness and finiteness (Rothko said that the paintings do not consist of canvas and oil, but of the focus on death and ten percent of hope — isn’t this proportion present at Rembrandt’s Prodigal son?).

And secondly — the very approach to painting: the "melting" of the edges of Rothko’s coloured rectangles seemed to be a logical continuation of the blurred and soft outlines, typical of Rembrandt, and the "magic" light emitted by even the darkest, monotone-brown paintings by Rembrandt, became the prototype for Rothko’s late "dark paintings", which, according to the audience, displayed an unexpected metaphysical glow.

Art critic Irina Kulik tells about her impression of Rothko’s paintings in the Houston chapel: "[They] cannot be reproduced in any way… These are almost black paintings, almost monochrome… When you go in there and start looking at them, you get the feeling that this is the blackest hour of the night. When it’s so dark that you understand: the blackest hour is over, the day will break soon. You take a good look and see some glimpses coming out of this blackness, this darkness. What seemed black, in fact, seems either blue or purple now. Some kind of light begins to appear from this darkness. That, in fact, is the perfect match of the passion of Christ."
  • Rembrandt. The Return of the Prodigal Son
  • Rothko. № 210 / № 211
Rembrandt was so important and valuable to Rothko that the latter’s own course of contemporary art, which the artist taught in the early 1950s at Brooklyn College, began with a conversation about Rembrandt.
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. Self portrait at the age of 34 years
  • Rembrandt. Self-Portrait
  • Mark Rothko. Self-Portrait
Self-portraits of Rembrandt and Rothko are similar not only in the pose and perspective (both painted half-turned, with their shoulder facing the viewer, and their hands clasping below the solar plexus) and warm brownish-orange palette, but also in the same age — both artists in these portraits had recently turned 33.
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. Christ in the storm on the sea of Galilee
  • Rembrandt. The Storm on the Sea of Galilee
  • Mark Rothko. The Slow Swirl by the Edge of Sea
For Rothko and Rembrandt, marine painting was a rare genre which appeared in their work only once. Yet, it is still hard to consider Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee and Rothko’s Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea to be pure seascapes.

William Turner

The Briton, who’s considered the forerunner of Impressionism, was also on the list of Rothko’s favourite artists. That, however, is not surprising and sometimes even quite obvious. Like Turner, Rothko furiously struggled to create the effect of shining shades. Like his idol, he preferred an intuitive, spontaneous approach to working on a painting, focusing on colour and sacrificing for its sake forms, clear outlines and other "formalities."
Joseph Mallord William Turner. Dazio Grande
  • William Turner. The Dazio Grande
  • Mark Rothko. Untitled
Consciously or not, Rothko also borrowed from Turner his extravagant technique. He was not always satisfied with just one brush and in a fit of passion often brought the image to perfection using his fingers, and sometimes even rubbed the already dried paint with a spittle. Rothko rubbed the paint into the canvas with his hands to completely get rid of the traces of his work with a roller or brush and destroy all visible obstacles between the human eye and the "inaudible voice of light".
Joseph Mallord William Turner. Three sea
Rothko Mark.  No. 9 (Dark on a light earthy, purple and yellow on pink)
  • William Turner. The Three Seascapes
  • Mark Rothko. No.9 (Dark over Light Earth)
Most likely, this imitation of the British predecessor was not a conscious, but a forced step: Mark Rothko wanted to show on the canvas "the existence of the invisible in the visible", and Turner’s methods proved to be suitable for this task.
Although art critics claim that Turner remained realistic even in the most abstract of his works, it is still difficult to deny his gradual movement towards an intangible, ethereal absolute. Thanks to this, his later works largely anticipated the abstract painting, which would appear only half a century later.
Joseph Mallord William Turner. Dawn or sunset sky over a landscape
Rothko Mark. Untitled (Brown and gray)
  • William Turner. A Dawn or Sunset Sky above a Landscape
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  • Mark Rothko. Untitled (Brown and Grey)

Claude Monet

"The reactions that I myself get from the Japanese, the Germans, the French, etc., is they are all agreed my work has the power to convey a new vision. Its message becomes visible in a new structural language never before experienced by them. In my work one therefore finds the direct awareness of an essential humanness. Monet had this quality and that’s why I prefer Monet to Cézanne … Despite the general claim that Cézanne had created a new vision and that he is the father of modern painting, I myself prefer Monet. Monet was for me the greater artist of the two." (From an interview with Mark Rothko in 1953)
Rothko painted very large canvases, hung them at a certain distance from the floor, set the lighting and didn’t participate in joint exhibitions. "A big picture is a huge space that cancels everything around it. It allows the viewer to be alone with the picture. He thinks in spaces, not in individual paintings, his pictorial series are installations in the space of the Museum hall," explains art critic Irina Kulik.

Conceiving his huge panels with water-lilies, Claude Monet dreamed about the same immersion and the absorption of the viewer. He planned everything — separate rooms, rounded walls, four panels in each room. Being in the centre of the oval hall, surrounded on all sides by water, having lost sight of the horizon and the shore, a person feels part of a whole. Creating a panel for the chapel in Houston, Rothko used the same idea. Only instead of Monet’s infinite water, Rothko had a pitch-dark night.
Monet’s Water Lilies at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris;
The Rothko Chapel in Houston. Photo:
Paul Cezanne. Curtain, Jug and Fruit Bowl
Rothko Mark. Untitled (still life with pitcher)
  • Paul Cézanne. The Curtain, Jug and Fruit, still-life.
  • Mark Rothko. Untitled (still-life with pitcher)
Preferring Monet to Cézanne, Mark Rothko still got into Cézanne's artistic principles in the period of his modernist research, trying to learn his visual language.

Paul Klee

Paul Klee was one of those important artists whom Rothko admired and quoted in the surreal paintings of the 1940s. When Rothko taught painting to children, he learned from them more than he taught them. And he proceeded from the view that his art was closer to primitive, childish, intuitive drawing than to academic painting.
Paul Klee. Bad orchestra
Rothko Mark. Archaic idol
  • Paul Klee. The Bad Band
  • Mark Rothko. The Archaic Idol
Paul Klee, who dreamed of growing a picture as a plant, invented automatic drawing, painted a primitive, unformed world at the beginning of creation, when the forms of things around us had not yet developed.
Paul Klee. Conquistador
Rothko Mark. No. 1
  • Paul Klee. The Conqueror
  • Mark Rothko. №1
In the late 30's, Klee taught at the Bauhaus school in Germany — and when the National Democrats came to power, he said, "The more horrible this world (as today, for instance), the more abstract our art."
Paul Klee. Seventeen
  • Paul Klee. Seventeen
  • Mark Rothko. Untitled
The tragedy of the World War II instigated Rothko’s immersion in pure abstraction painting because the figurative painting was powerless for such a full-scale disaster. According to Rothko, facing such horror a human figure could not even raise its hand in a gesture of despair.
Paul Klee. Thresholds
Rothko Mark. Four dark markings on the red
  • Paul Klee. Thrsholds
  • Mark Rothko. Four Darks in Red

Edvard Munch

It’s quite easy to draw a parallel between Rothko’s and the anxious Norwegian’s art. Sometimes it can be seen with the naked eye.
Edvard Munch. Yawning girl
Rothko Mark. Untitled (Reclining Nude)
  • Edvard Munch. The Girl Yawning
  • Mark Rothko. Untitled (Female Nude Lying)
You don’t need to look for comparisons: like Munch, Rothko considered his super-task in art to be the opportunity to convey to the viewer his experiences in the most intelligible and unchanged form. Moreover, they shared similar worries: anxiety, tragedy, despair and fear.
Edvard Munch. Despair
Rothko Mark. No. 2
  • Edvard Munch. The Despair
  • Mark Rothko. №2
Rothko’s biographers warn: there is no need to interpret his bright paintings, full of warm, sunny tones, as cheerful. Whatever the palette of Rothko was, the artist was always interested in one topic: the tragic inevitability of existence.
Edvard Munch. Creek
Rothko Mark. Untitled (Yellow and blue)
  • Edvard Munch. The Scream
  • Mark Rothko. Untitled (Yellow and Blue)
Munch’s painful perception of the world originated in his childhood. He experienced the death at a young age. he was only five years old when his mother died. "Disease and insanity were the black angels on guard at my cradle," said the artist.
Rothko lost his father when he was ten. According to the memoirs of a close friend of the painter, the art critic Irving Sandler, the attitude towards life of both artists was similar: "Rothko was pessimistic. In addition, it is necessary to consider the environment in which he lived — the Second world war and the cold war. And at the end of his life, he had serious health problems. He never considered himself a happy man, and his paintings include the imprint of the tragedy".
In fact, in some ways, Rothko and Munch were so unanimous that literally echoed each other. Let’s compare. "I will paint living people who breathe and feel, and suffer, and love. People should understand the significance, the power of it. They should put off their hats like they do in church," dreamed Munch. "The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them," stated Rothko.
Edvard Munch. Moonlight
Rothko Mark.  No. 16
  • Edvard Munch. The Moonlight
  • Mark Rothko. №16
The attitude to the dialogue between the audience and the creator united these two artists: they were convinced that only their works must be a self-sufficient statement.

"It is impossible to explain the painting. It arises from the inability of the artist to find a different way of expression. All that can be done here is to slightly push the viewer in the right direction, to hint at the artist’s way of thinking."(Edvard Munch)

"No possible set of notes can explain our paintings. Their explanation must come out of a consummated experience between picture and onlooker." (Mark Rothko)
Edvard Munch. Winter forest
1901, 60.5×90 cm
Rothko Mark. Untitled (Green on blue)
1956, 228.6×161.3 cm

Henri Matisse

The legend says that Mark Rothko’s painting technique changed drastically thanks to one of the paintings of the famous Frenchman, the result of which was the appearance of classical rectangles that marked the final victory of colour over all other picturesque essences.
Henri Matisse. Red Studio
1911, 181×219.1 cm
Rothko Mark.  No. 21
1949, 203.2×100 cm
In 1949, in the New York Museum of Modern Art, Matisse’s painting The Red Studio appeared. Rothko would often visit it, contemplating at the canvas for a long time. "When you look at this painting you became that colour, you became totally saturated with it," and called the work one of the key factors that influenced the evolution of his work.
Henri Matisse. Blue Nude
Rothko Mark. Untitled (Three Nudes)
  • Henri Matisse. The Blue Nude
  • Mark Rothko. Untitled. The Three Nudes
However, they were complete opposites in the messages they wanted to convey to the viewers. "What I dream of is an art of balance… like a comforting influence, a mental balm—something like a good armchair in which one rests from physical fatigue," Matisse claimed. Perhaps, that is the reason why the nervous and restless Rothko liked him so much.
Henri Matisse. Girl with tulips
Rothko Mark. Homage To Matisse
  • Henri Matisse. The Girl with Tulips
  • Mark Rothko. The Homage to Matisse
In the mid-1950s, on the rise of his career, when Rothko refused to invent the names of his paintings, he made one of the rare exceptions. In 1954, he painted Homage to Matisse. It was at that time when a French painter died from the stroke.

It is symbolic that the last thing Matisse worked on was the design of the monastery Capella Chetok in Vance, which he considered to be a dream come true. An amazing rhyme for the Rothko chapel, the creation, the artist put his whole being in, but which opened only after his death.
Henri Matisse. House on the field
Rothko Mark. Untitled
  • Henri Matisse. The Autumn in Cagnes
  • Mark Rothko. Untitled

Joan Miró

In 1942, when World War II forced to flee such artists as Max Ernst, Joan Miró and Salvador Dali, to the United States, New York was literally under the wave of European surrealism
Surrealism (Fr. surréalisme) is an avant-garde art movement of the first half of the twentieth century characterized by the fusion of reality with something else, but not oppositional. Surrealism is a dream which is neither real, nor surreal. The style is characterized by allusions and a paradoxical combination of forms, visual deception. In the paintings of the Surrealists hard objects and rocks often melt, and the water, on the contrary, hardens. Read more
. Rothko and his peers Gottlieb and Newman were seriously keen on the new trend after the crazy success of the exhibitions of their overseas colleagues. For some time they even considered themselves heirs of the tradition of the European avant-garde.
Joan Miro. The Catalan landscape. Hunter
  • Joan Miró. The Catalan Landscape
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    (The Hunter)
  • Mark Rothko. Untitled
Most of all it is known about Mark Rothko’s sympathies for the artist Miró. He repeatedly with special love and admiration spoke about his work. It is believed that the painting by Joan Miro The Hunter (Catalan landscape), which in 1936 became part of the collection of the New York Museum of modern art, had a significant influence on the artistic vision of Rothko in the mid-1940s.
Joan Miro. A bottle of wine
Rothko Mark. The scene of baptism
  • Joan Miró. The Bottle of Wine
  • Mark Rothko. The Baptismal Scene
Despite some intersections of Rothko’s expressive means in early 1940's with the developments of Pablo Picasso, he treated creativity of the Spaniard with less enthusiasm. Ironically, the artist, who half a lifetime would depict rectangles of all colours, found Picasso’s approach to painting too geometric and straightforward.

But, as history showed, it was for the better. Perhaps, thanks to this antipathy, we now have not an American Picasso, and the great and terrible Mark Rothko, the wizard of the country of the colour fields.
Pablo Picasso. A woman with a cock
Rothko Mark. The crucifixion
  • Pablo Picasso. The Woman with a Cockerel
  • Mark Rothko. Untitled (The Punishment by Crucifixion)
Authors: Nataliia Azarenko, Anna Sidelnikova, Anna Vcherashnia
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 Comments  10
Vinokurov Aleksandr
Vinokurov Aleksandr
, May 26, 2017 05:43 AM 1
Original   Auto-Translated
сжечь всё ))
Natalya Azarenko
, May 26, 2017 06:39 AM 1
Original   Auto-Translated
были такие в середине прошлого века. книги и картины жгли, да.
Natalya Kandaurova
, May 26, 2017 06:44 AM 0
Aleksandr Matyukhin
, May 26, 2017 06:41 AM 0
Aleksandr Matyukhin
, May 26, 2017 06:44 AM 0
Original   Auto-Translated
Не смешите людей! Как можно сравнивать гения живописи - Рембранта с каким-то "дворовым" мамяром? И не нужно пиарится на таких сравнениях автору. Не считайте других людей не понимающими, что такое настоящее искусство!
Natalya Azarenko
, May 26, 2017 09:30 AM 0
Natalya Kandaurova
, May 26, 2017 11:30 AM 0
Anatoliy Khodorkovskiy
, May 26, 2017 01:05 PM 0
Leah Shulman
, May 28, 2017 08:59 PM 2
Original   Auto-Translated
А у меня, когда я смотрю на картины М.Ротко - все внутри поёт, наслаждаясь в стремлении слияния с его работами
Aleksandr Matyukhin
, June 2, 2017 07:08 AM 0
Original   Auto-Translated
Даже смешно было в этом "слиянии..." )))
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