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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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"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.

Important Art by Robert Motherwell

Pancho Villa, Dead and Alive (1943)

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.

At Five in the Afternoon (c.1949)

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.

Je t'aime No.2 (1955)

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.

Influences and Connections

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Robert Motherwell
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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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