Robert Motherwell
American artist



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Robert Motherwell
American artist
Average: 3 (1 vote)

Birth Date

January 24, 1915

Death Date

July 16, 1991

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Robert Motherwell, the man who coined the name “The New York School,” was the rookie of the boys' club that was Abstract Expressionism.

He missed the boat of FDR's Works Progress Administration, which dedicated funds to the employment of artists to do public murals and things (among them Willam de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and a bajillion more). He was too busy studying at Stanford, Harvard and eventually Columbia. So when he got on the scene in New York he barely had any formal art training. 

He was also kind of the catalyst that began Abstract Expressionism. The legend goes like this, according to Motherwell: “[Roberto] Matta wanted to start a revolution, a movement, within Surrealism. He asked me to find some other American artists that would help start a new movement. It was then that [William] Baziotes and I went to see [Jackson] Pollock and [William] de Kooning and [Hans] Hofmann… and several other people. Peggy Guggenheim who liked us said that she would put on a show of this new business… It sort of all began that way.” And just like that a movement was born - one that shifted the art scene hotspot from Europe to America.

You’ll notice that the founding members of Abstract Expressionism were pretty much all male, with the exception of a few very forceful women. Motherwell wasn’t super into women's art and tried his hardest not to acknowledge their work. Somehow he still married Helen Frankenthaler and they became the art world’s “golden couple.” The relationship didn’t last. Though Frankenthaler refused to discuss it, it would be easy to assume that it was because Motherwell was kind of a douche.



  1. Oral history interview with Robert Motherwell, 1971 Nov. 24-1974 May 1, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
  2. Reed, Susan and Jess Cagle. “With Her Greatest Works on Display, Helen Frankenthaler Paints a Quirky Portrait of the Artist – Vol. 32 No. 23.” December 4, 1989. Accessed January 25, 2017.

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Here is what Wikipedia says about Robert Motherwell

Robert Motherwell (January 24, 1915 – July 16, 1991) was an American painter, printmaker, and editor. He was one of the youngest of the New York School, which also included Philip Guston, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko.

Early life and education

Robert Motherwell was born in Aberdeen, Washington on January 24, 1915, the first child of Robert Burns Motherwell II and Margaret Hogan Motherwell. The family later moved to San Francisco, where Motherwell's father served as president of Wells Fargo Bank. 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 colours that later emerged as essential characteristics of his abstract paintings (ultramarine blue of the sky and yellow ochre 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 BA 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.

At the age of 20 Motherwell traveled to Europe with his father and sister. They made a Grand Tour starting in Paris, then went to Amalfi, Italy; Switzerland; Germany; The Netherlands; and London; and ended in Motherwell, Scotland.

From Motherwell's own words, the reason he went to Harvard was that he wanted to be a painter, while his father urged him to pursue a more secure career: "And finally after months of really a cold war he made a very generous agreement with me that if I would get a Ph.D. so that I would be equipped to teach in a college as an economic insurance, he would give me fifty dollars a week for the rest of my life to do whatever I wanted to do on the assumption that with fifty dollars I could not starve but it would be no inducement to last. So with that agreed on Harvard then—it was actually the last year—Harvard still had the best philosophy school in the world. And since I had taken my degree at Stanford in philosophy, and since he didn't care what the Ph.D. was in, I went on to Harvard."

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 an American composer Arthur Berger. In fact, it was Berger who advised Motherwell to continue his education at Columbia University, under Meyer Shapiro.

Check out the full Wikipedia article about Robert Motherwell.