Robert Motherwell (1915-1991) was an American painter, printmaker, and editor. Due to the artist's asthmatic condition, Motherwell was reared largely on the Pacific Coast and spent most of his school years in California. There he developed a love for the broad spaces and bright colors that later emerged as essential characteristics of his abstract paintings (ultramarine blue of the sky and ochre yellow of Californian hills). His later concern with themes of mortality can likewise be traced to his frail health as a child.
Between 1932 and 1937, Motherwell briefly studied painting at California School of Fine Arts, San Francisco and received a B.A. in philosophy from Stanford University. At Stanford, Motherwell was introduced to modernism through his extensive reading of symbolist and other literature, especially Mallarmé, James Joyce, Edgar Allan Poe, and Octavio Paz. This passion stayed with Motherwell for the rest of his life and became a major theme of his later paintings and drawings.
Motherwell went to Harvard because his father urged him to pursue a career more secure than painting. At Harvard, Motherwell studied under Arthur Oncken Lovejoy and David Wite Prall; to research the writings of Eugène Delacroix he spent a year in Paris, where he met the American composer Arthur Berger. In fact, it was Berger who advised Motherwell to continue his education at Columbia University, under Meyer Shapiro in 1940.
Shapiro introduced the young artist to a group of exiled Parisian Surrealists and arranged for Motherwell to study with Kurt Seligmann. The time that Motherwell spent with the Surrealists proved to be influential to his artistic process. After a 1941 voyage with Roberto Matta to Mexico — on a boat where he met Maria, an actress and his future wife — Motherwell decided to make painting his primary vocation.
He was one of the youngest of the New York School, which also included Philip Guston, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko.
Portrait by Renate Ponsold