His life was long (September 25, 1903–February 25, 1970) and complicated and I will only use a little of it here. He was born in Latvia and grew up in Portland, Oregon, winning a scholarship to Yale but leaving because it was too rarified for him. He worked in the garment district of New York after that, and started going to art classes. His first important teacher and influence was Max Weber, another Russian Jew (although Rothko was born in what we now call Latvia, it was part of Russia at the time of his birth).
The 1920s in New York were a time of many exciting exhibitions of 'new' art and Rothko was exposed to the, for their time, startling works of Paul Klee and the German Expressionists. He had his first one-man show in Portland in 1932, shortly after marrying Edith Sachar, a jewllery designer who would appear in many of his drawings and paintings for many years.
After the breakup of his marriage in 1943, Rothko returned to his family in Portland, and then travelled to Berkley, where he met the artist Clyfford Still, an abstract artist whose friendship and worth dramatically affected Rothko's life and work from that time on.
To cut a long story short, Rothko remarried in 1945 to a 23 year old childrens' book illustrator, Mary Alice Beistle, and enjoyed a happier and more stable life for some time after this. The paintings that most people actually think of as 'Rothkos' started in 1948, exhibited for the first time early the following year. He used oils on huge canvases, often painted vertically, to produce very large abstracts which were designed to 'envelope' the viewer. In fact he prefered them to be viewed very close up. This results in an appreciate of the wonderful shadings and textures that are then apparent in what otherwise may seem to be large blocks of flat colour. Because the canvases were so big he often painted half, then turned them upside down to finish them. This has resulted in a number of famous 'upside down' paintings, were paint drips can be seen running in the wrong direction to the way the paintings are hung. They are not actually hung upside down (though argument still apparently rages on this point) as either end has the paint drips.
His most significant later works include two mural commissions, for the Four Seasons restaurant in the head office of the drinks company Joseph Seagram and Sons, and the Rothko Chapel at the University of St Thomas in Houston, Texas. He committed suicide before these last works were installed. The murals for the Four Seasons restaurant were spilt into three collections, to be seen in the Tate Modern in London, the Kawamura Memorial Museum in Japan, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
Rothko's paintings are held in major galleries all over the world. My first exposure to him came when the National Gallery of Victoria purchased No 37 (Red), painted in 1956, and I thought it was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. I have subsequently seen Rothkos all over the world, including at the amazing Tate Gallery in St Ives, Cornwall , which has one of the best settings of any art gallery I have ever seen. I was delighted to discover recently, after reading more about Rothko than I had in the past, that the one in the National Gallery of Victoria is an upside- down one!