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Robert Motherwell

American Painter and Printmaker

Born: January 24, 1915 - Aberdeen, Washington
Died: July 16, 1991 - Provincetown, Massachusetts
Movements and Styles:
Abstract Expressionism
"Every intelligent painter carries the whole culture of modern painting in his head. It is his real subject, of which everything he paints in both an homage and a critique, and everything he says is a gloss."
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Robert Motherwell Signature
"The large format, at one blow, destroyed the century-long tendency of the French to domesticize modern painting, to make it intimate. We replaced the nude girl and the French door with a modern Stonehenge, with a sense of the sublime and the tragic that had not existed since Goya and Turner"
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"Most painting in the European tradition was painting the mask. Modern art rejected all that. Our subject matter was the person behind the mask."
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"In printmaking, I essentially use the same process as in painting with one important exception ... to try, with sensitivity to the medium to emphasize what printing can do best ... better than say, painting or collaging or watercolor or drawing or whatever ... Otherwise, the artist expresses the same vision in graphics that he does in his other work."
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"Without ethical consciousness, a painter is only a decorator."
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"Every artist's problem is to invent himself."
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"If the abstraction, the violence, the humanity was valid in Abstract Expressionism, then it cut out the ground from every other kind of painting."
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Summary of Robert Motherwell

Possessing perhaps the best and most extensive formal education of all the New York School painters, Robert Motherwell was well versed in literature, philosophy and the European modernist traditions. His paintings, prints and collages feature simple shapes, bold color contrasts and a dynamic balance between restrained and boldly gestural brushstrokes. They reflect not only a dialogue with art history, philosophy and contemporary art, but also a sincere and considered engagement with autobiographical content, contemporary events and the essential human conditions of life, death, oppression and revolution.


  • Motherwell was an accomplished writer and editor, as well as an eloquent speaker. Through his teaching, lectures and publications, he became an unofficial spokesman and interpreter for the Abstract Expressionist movement.
  • Several key themes define Motherwell's work: the dialogue between repression and rebellion, between European modernism and a new American vision, and between formal and emotional approaches to art making.
  • Motherwell was an accomplished printmaker and an avid collagist, and he often used these techniques to engage with and respond to the influences of European modernism.

Biography of Robert Motherwell

Robert Motherwell Life and Legacy

Robert Motherwell was born in Aberdeen, Washington, in 1915, but he would spend much of his childhood in the dry environs of central California, where he was sent in an effort to relieve his severe asthma. The son of a well-to-do and conservative bank chairman, Motherwell was expected to follow in his father's footsteps. From early on, though, Motherwell displayed an affinity for more intellectual and creative pursuits, and his early education included a scholarship to study at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles.

Progression of Art


Pancho Villa, Dead and Alive

Pancho Villa, Dead and Alive is a direct reference to a photograph that Motherwell encountered of the murdered revolutionary, Pancho Villa. The work straddles the line between referential painting and the style that would become Abstract Expressionism, and includes several thematic relationships that appear throughout the artist's oeuvre. In its allusion to the Mexican revolution, this work also prefigures the themes that would drive Motherwell's seminal Elegy to the Spanish Republic series.

Gouache and oil with cut-and-pasted paper on cardboard - The Museum of Modern Art, New York


At Five in the Afternoon

At Five in the Afternoon began as a small pen and ink drawing that Motherwell composed in 1948 to accompany a poem by Harold Rosenberg. A year later, Motherwell reinvented the drawing as a small painting and renamed the work after a line in the poem "Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias," by Federico Garcia Lorca. This work acts as the first entry in Motherwell's Elegies to the Spanish Republic series and sets up a formal and aesthetic system that would define the entire series.

Casein on Composition board - Collection, Helen Frankenthaler, New York


Je t'aime No.2

Je t'aime No.2 serves as a prime example of Motherwell's second significant series of paintings, which he composed between 1953 and 1957, as his second marriage came to an end. The work exhibits energetic, emotionally charged brushwork, bright, evocative colors, and the artist's trademark ovoid and rectilinear forms. Written across the canvas is the French phrase "Je t'aime," ("I love you") an allusion to the lasting influence of Gallic culture on Motherwell's work, and, no doubt, a reference to the artist's personal anxieties during this time.

Oil on canvas - Collection, Mr. And Mrs. Gilbert Harrison, New York


Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 110

Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 110 is part of a series comprising more than 140 paintings, which Motherwell worked on throughout his long career. The series functioned as the artist's memorial to the Spanish Civil War, an event that had come to symbolize for him the human tragedies of oppression and injustice. No. 110 is typical in its stark black and white palette, and interplay of ovoid and bar-like rectilinear forms. What exactly those forms are intended to mean, though, has been the subject of great debate. Some compare them to architecture, or to ancient monuments, while others read them as phalluses and wombs, which, along with the pictures' somber palette, might suggest the cycle of life and death.

Acrylic with pencil and charcoal on canvas - Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York


The Blue Painting Lesson: A Study in Painterly Logic, number one of five

The Blue Painting Lesson: A Study in Painterly, is part of a group of works composed between 1968 and 1972, known as the Opens series. It shares a simple but powerful formal construct with the rest of the series: a densely colored, almost monochromatic background highlighted by a two or three-sided box that enters the canvas from the top of the composition. This box is an abstract reference to the window views seen in the work of many European masters, and may also refer to the intersection of internal and external worlds in the life of the artist.

Oil on canvas - Collection, Dedalus Foundation, New York


Tobacco Roth-Handle

Tobacco Roth-Handle is a synthesis of collage and printmaking techniques - two important strains in Motherwell's work. The central identifiable image in the print, a cigarette wrapper, is a personal reference; it is typical of the sort of ephemera from the artist's daily life that had begun to find its way into Motherwell's collages by the 1960s. Regarding his collages, Motherwell once said, "The part of my vocabulary that is not from inner pressure, but that is drawn from the external world, is from the social world. To pick up a cigarette wrapper or a wine label or an old letter or the end of a carton is my way of dealing with those things that do not originate in me, in my I."

Four-color lithograph and screenprint on HMP handmade paper - Walker Art Center, Minneapolis

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Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Robert Motherwell Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 21 Nov 2011. Updated and modified regularly
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