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Mark Rothko: Toward the Light in the Chapel

Mark Rothko: Toward the Light in the Chapel

by Annie Cohen-Solal

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A fascinating exploration of the life and work of one of America’s most famous and enigmatic postwar visual artists

Mark Rothko, one of the greatest painters of the twentieth century, was born in the Jewish Pale of Settlement in 1903. He immigrated to the United States at age ten, taking with him his Talmudic education and his memories of pogroms and


A fascinating exploration of the life and work of one of America’s most famous and enigmatic postwar visual artists

Mark Rothko, one of the greatest painters of the twentieth century, was born in the Jewish Pale of Settlement in 1903. He immigrated to the United States at age ten, taking with him his Talmudic education and his memories of pogroms and persecutions in Russia. His integration into American society began with a series of painful experiences, especially as a student at Yale, where he felt marginalized for his origins and ultimately left the school. The decision to become an artist led him to a new phase in his life. Early in his career, Annie Cohen-Solal writes, “he became a major player in the social struggle of American artists, and his own metamorphosis benefited from the unique transformation of the U.S. art world during this time.” Within a few decades, he had forged his definitive artistic signature, and most critics hailed him as a pioneer. The numerous museum shows that followed in major U.S. and European institutions ensured his celebrity. But this was not enough for Rothko, who continued to innovate. Ever faithful to his habit of confronting the establishment, he devoted the last decade of his life to cultivating his new conception of art as an experience, thanks to the commission of a radical project, the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas.

Cohen-Solal’s fascinating biography, based on considerable archival research, tells the unlikely story of how a young immigrant from Dvinsk became a crucial transforming agent of the art world—one whose legacy prevails to this day.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Yaelle Azagury
Written in succinct and fast-paced prose, this streamlined volume…argues that Rothko's Jewishness is at the core of his life and art, and played a decisive influence in the austere and majestic canvases recognized today as his signature work…[Cohen-Solal] carves out a portrait of the artist as an intellectual and original thinker, a cerebral figure rooted in his father's Jewish background and progressive ideas and in his own Talmudic education…she excels at studying the constellation of galleries, gallerists, art critics, artists and power players; and her sociological depiction of artists in the United States, in a period (the '50s and '60s) when the art world's center of gravity was shifting from Europe to America, is quite astute, an extension of her remarkable book about the gallerist Leo Castelli.
Publishers Weekly
★ 01/05/2015
In this gripping biography, Cohen-Solal (Leo & His Circle: The Life of Leo Castelli) examines the life and work of Rothko, an artist motivated by his spirituality and one of the most distinguished painters of the 20th century. The meticulous text begins with the artist’s birth as Marcus Rotkovitch in the Russian Empire in 1903, during a time of “tensions, persecutions, and latent hostility” toward Jews, followed by his emigration to Portland, Ore., at age 10. It goes on to catalogue the political, social, and religious forces that contributed to Rothko’s success and also caused him considerable setbacks throughout his career. Digging into archives and conducting interviews with scholars and the artist’s relatives, Cohen-Solal illuminates the lifelong impact Rothko’s time in Talmudic school, as well as the support he received from the immigrant Jewish community in Portland during his years as a minority student in high school. The author also traces Rothko’s struggles at Yale University, in New Haven, Conn., the “inaccessible club of young WASPs,” where he learned that “the Yale social system was based more on breeding than on merit.” The book richly illustrates a contentious period in the American art world, including the Armory Show, clashes between artists and institutions, and the growing influence of European artists such as Rodin, Cézanne, Picasso, and Matisse in the United States. This novelistic account is a rewarding close-up of Rothko’s personal life and his experience as a Jewish immigrant. Photos. (Mar.)
David Myers

“Once again, Annie Cohen-Solal has done it. As with her book on Leo Castelli, she has managed to bring not only Mark Rothko, but his time, to life. This book is a grand blend of biography, cultural history, and art criticism. Rare is the scholar who can pull it off so masterfully.”—David Myers, University of California, Los Angeles
David N. Myers
“Once again, Annie Cohen-Solal has done it. As with her book on Leo Castelli, she has managed to bring not only Mark Rothko, but his time, to life. This book is a grand blend of biography, cultural history, and art criticism. Rare is the scholar who can pull it off so masterfully.”—David N. Myers, Professor of Jewish History, UCLA History Department
“[A] tightly focused, profoundly clarifying biography . . . A defining and affecting tribute to a modern master.”—Booklist, starred review
Cleveland Plain Dealer
"Cohen-Solal's work is well-written and well-argued, and will be of interest to anyone concerned with Rothko, modern art, American intellectual history or the politics and processes of Jewish identity and assimilation."—Cleveland Plain Dealer
New Criterion
"Cohen-Solal has made an important contribution with a well-researched book about Rothko's life."—New Criterion
The Independent - Marcus Field
‘In this moving and readable biography, Cohen-Solal tells the story of Rothko’s life through the prism of his Jewishness.’—Marcus Field, the Independent.
National Post
“It’s unlikely that many of Rothko’s admirers understand his art as he wanted it understood. . . . Annie Cohen-Solal . . . corrects our perceptions in Mark Rothko.”—National Post
New Yorker
“This compact study places Rothko’s development within the context of the evolution of American art in the mid-twentieth century . . . Cohen-Solal subtly demonstrates the link between Rothko’s three outsider statuses (artist, immigrant, and Jew), his color-block canvases, and his essential Americanness.”—New Yorker
Washington Times
"Illuminating . . . Impressively sourced . . . A sublime little volume."—Washington Times
Washington Post
“An admirable attempt to construct a coherent framework around what is undeniably a complicated, not to say messy, life.”—Washington Post
Times Higher Education Supplement
“Engrossing.”—Times Higher Education Supplement
Kirkus Reviews
Cohen-Solal's (Leo and His Circle: A Life of Leo Castelli, 2010, etc.) study of Mark Rothko (1903-1970) is notable for her ability to link his strong Jewish ties to his changing, evolving art. Her access to newly available archives enables her comprehensive portrait of the man.Born in Russia, Rothko's father insisted he attend Talmud Torah from ages 4 to 10, after which his family immigrated to Portland, Oregon, and a strong Jewish community. While he quit the temple shortly after his father's death in 1914, his ties to Judaism and his anger at being a minority and an immigrant often obsessed him. He abandoned his scholarship to Yale after two years due to the WASPish exclusion practiced against Jews. The author seems to skip over Rothko's art education; suddenly, at age 32, he has his first solo exhibition in Portland, followed by exhibits in New York and Paris the following year. His style changed often in the 1930s, when he was part of "The Ten," a group of radical, experimentalist individuals rejecting regionalism and searching for the true form of American art. He went from a mythological phase to surrealism to a multiform period. Dissatisfied with realism, he explored "subjective abstraction." When he saw Matisse's Red Studio in 1949, he plunged fully into the realm of abstraction. The artist was always angry, especially at art institutions, which made him hostile and suspicious. They rejected the new American artists and treated his paintings as "decorative." Rothko was obsessive and controlling in exhibitions, but his art conjured emotion out of simplicity; even in the dark, his swaths of color exuded their own light, making his work a complete experience. A sure hit for fans of art history, and readers looking to understand modern art and especially abstraction will find this wonderfully enlightening.

Product Details

Yale University Press
Publication date:
Jewish Lives Series
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Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt

Mark Rothko

Toward the Light in the Chapel

By Annie Cohen-Solal


Copyright © 2013 Annie Cohen-Solal
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-18553-9


The Charismatic Yacov Rotkovitch—A Jew of the Empire: 1903–1913

We should think about late imperial Russian Jewry not only as more Russian and more imperial than previously thought, but also as enthusiastic participants in the life of a modern society that afforded them the possibility of a 'vibrant cultural life'.

—Kenneth B. Moss

On September 25, 1903, Marcus Rotkovitch was born in Dvinsk, a northwestern city of the Russian Empire, the fourth child of Yacov Rotkovitch, a local pharmacist, and his wife, Anna Goldin. Forty years later, in New York City, Marcus would choose to become Mark Rothko, the name by which he is known today. While, in 1903, the birth of the youngest child of this bourgeois family was greeted with joy by his older siblings —Sonia, thirteen; Moses, ten; and Albert, eight—the celebration was tempered by their father's growing anxiety about the current political situation. A horrendous massacre of Jews that had taken place five months earlier in Kishinev—yet another symptom of the explosive situation in czarist Russia—certainly foreshadowed the fate of Jewish families living within the Pale of settlement.

This territory had been established by the Empress Catherine II a little more than a century earlier, following claims from Muscovite merchants against the many Jewish dealers, "known for their deceit and lies," who had recently settled in Belorussia. "Jews in Russia are compelled by law," the sovereign stated in 1791, "to reside inside the Pale of Settlement, or the territory comprising some fifteen governments, or provinces, of western and southern Russia, extending south from the coast of the southern Baltic to the Crimea, and westward from Charkov and Smolensk to the borders of Roumania, Galicia, and Prussian Poland." The five million Jewish subjects of this area the size of Texas—a small minority of the total population—would sporadically be excluded from property ownership in the shtetls from the 1880s, with these regulations frequently circumvented by bribery and the like.

On Sunday, April 19, 1903, the first evening of Russian Easter, the Jewish population of Kishinev (today Chisinau, the capital of Moldova) fell prey to a pogrom of unprecedented scale. In the Pale of Settlement, news of the Kishinev massacre spread like wildfire. Many writers, Jews and non-Jews alike, including Tolstoy and Gorky, rallied to oppose what they saw as a point of no return. And even Trotsky—who, in London with Lenin, was immersed in the creation of the social democratic congress—expressed his deep concern. While recalling "the acute impression of the Kishinev events" in the June issue of Iskra magazine, the Marxist theorist set out to expose "the deluge of monstrous rumors spread by the police" in the wake of the slaughter. But we owe to the poet Hayyim Nahman Bialik, sent by the Jewish Historical Commission to investigate the pogrom, the most stirring account of this tragedy in his epic poem The City of Slaughter. The New York Times reported the following week that "the anti-Jewish riots in Kishinev, Bessarabia, are worse than the censor will permit to publish," calling them a "well laid-out plan for the general massacre of Jews on the day following the Russian Easter." That evening, the article described, "the mob was led by priests, and the general cry, 'Kill the Jews,' was taken-up all over the city. The Jews were taken wholly unaware and were slaughtered like sheep. ... Babies were literally torn to pieces by the frenzied and bloodthirsty mob." "The local police," the newspaper insisted, "made no attempt to check the reign of terror. At sunset the streets were piled with corpses and wounded."

In fact, the Kishinev pogrom culminated a century of tensions, persecutions, and latent hostility against the Jewish population confined to the Pale of Settlement. Such escalation was evidenced in the complicity between Vyacheslav Plehve, the minister of the interior, and Pavel Krushevan, the editor in chief of the local newspaper, Bessarabets, whose repeated insults —"Death to the Jews!" "Crusade against the dishonorable race!"—and accusations of conspiracy against the Empire certainly stirred, according to Karl Schmidt, the city's mayor, antisemitism among the Russian population. Soon after the massacre, it was revealed that the newspaper was being funded by the minister himself. For quite some time, jealous craftsmen and hostile civil servants had grown increasingly antagonistic toward Jews. When, in April 1903, Kishinev's Jewish population was unfairly accused of murdering Christian children and using their blood "for ritual purposes," injustice was at its highest, paving the way to the ensuing pogrom. But how did the Kishinev massacre affect a family such as the Rotkovitches, living in such a different cultural environment and, especially, hundreds of miles away? Did they react to it in any way? Did they feel directly threatened? In the archives, no such evidence has been found. The following pages will focus on Yacov, a charismatic Jew of the empire, and the father of this enlightened family.

For more than a century already, throughout the reigns of Czars Alexander I and Nicholas I, Jewish citizens had suffered the consequences of unfair laws, including the conscription policy established by the former in 1827, which forced Jewish boys and men between the ages of twelve and twenty-five to abjure their religion and join the army for a minimum of twenty-five years. Partially excluded from both the rural and the urban economy, Jews often turned to small and basic craftsmanship in the shtetls, where life was centered on the market and synagogue. In 1855, the accession of Czar Alexander II brought almost immediate relief to the Jewish subjects, giving them a ray of hope that would last for a quarter of a century, until 1881.

It was during this period, in 1859, that Yacov Rotkovitch, father of the future Mark Rothko, was born in Michalishek (known today as Mikoliskis, Lithuania), a shtetl of 250 families located in the northern part of the Pale. Through perseverance and determination, exploiting all available assets of his time, Yacov managed to attend university in Vilnius (Vilna) and become a pharmacist. Later in life, he found himself in Saint Petersburg, where he met Anna Goldin, eleven years his junior. A German speaker, she also belonged to a rare group of Jewish families who, being deemed "useful" to the Empire, benefited from the czar's liberal policies: for them, exclusively, were lifted restrictions to schooling, professional advancement, and employment in government positions, and they were also granted the right to reside in cities such as saint Petersburg and Moscow. Politically, Imperial Russia did not grant equal rights for all: until 1917, legal distinctions continued to exist between nobility, merchants, and peasants, and hence the special regulations for Jews remained part of this larger legal framework. Anna was only sixteen when she married Yacov, but her status allowed him to pursue his strategy of social ascension. This period of calm, however, was short-lived: the recent emancipation of some Jewish citizens, which gave them conditional access to professional bodies, rekindled tensions and jealousy among the Russian population. The czar's assassination in 1881 provided a new opportunity to scapegoat Jews, and a new wave of violence ensued. In May 1882, on the assumption that the riots were the by-product of Jewish economic exploitation of the peasantry, new restrictive laws were instituted. They included shrinking the Pale of Settlement and imposing quotas on secondary education for Jewish males, etc.... In the final years of the nineteenth century—with a 150 percent increase in population in the Pale between 1820 and 1880—poverty was on the rise, so much so that the Jewish subjects, left with no hope, started leaving their own country. Displaced according to the vagaries of the Russian Empire's changing policies, the Rotkovitches eventually settled in Mishalishek, the very shtetl where Yacov was born; it was there that Yacov and Anna saw the birth of their first children: Sonia in 1890 and Moses in 1892. Two years later, the family moved to Dvinsk, a large city of the Russian Empire's Baltic governorates, twenty-five miles northeast of Mishalishek, where Albert was born in 1895, followed by Marcus in 1903.

Protected by its fortified walls, and overlooking the Dvina (Dauga) River, Dvinsk thrived as a city of seventy-five thousand inhabitants. It was at the crossroads of three railway lines, connecting it to Saint Petersburg (to the northeast), Riga (to the northwest), and Libau ([Liepaja] to the east)—an ideal geographic situation—and was marked by its three massive train stations. Travelers took advantage of Dvinsk's dynamism as a major trading hub en route from the Baltic Sea to the Gulf of Finland and Moscow, including its biweekly market where country folk sold vegetables, cheeses, chickens, and fish from their wooden carts. Entirely devoted to commerce, Dvinsk could boast, in 1912, more than six thousand workers and a hundred industries specializing in textiles, leather, watchmaking, and building materials. No wonder, then, that its population doubled between 1905 and 1913, thereby reflecting its rise as one of the most politically active cities within the Pale of Settlement at the turn of the twentieth century. In Dvinsk's old park, rallies by social democrats followed demonstrations by revolutionaries and speeches by Bundists or representatives of various Zionist organizations.

Little is known about Yacov Rotkovitch. The few photos of him depict a serious-looking intellectual, with a large forehead, a carefully trimmed dark beard, and little wire-rimmed glasses. We are told that he was a voracious reader, as were his wife and children; that their library contained more than three hundred volumes; and that, another revealing sign of their status, they spoke Russian at home. The people of Dvinsk greatly appreciated the free-spirited pharmacist, and not just because of the remedies he provided them. His natural ability as a writer turned him into a sort of public scrivener in the city, a mentor who wrote letters and supplications on people's behalf. The popular and charismatic pharmacist, whose languages included Hebrew and German, has also been described as an "idealist" who volunteered at the hospital, as well as a politically radical man who favored progressive ideas and who closely followed the peaceful demonstrations held in the city. As to his wife, Anna, photos of her show an elegant and dignified woman in white-collared dresses. A "very secular" person, according to her granddaughter Kate, she is also remembered as "a powerhouse" and "the most cheerful member of the family" by her great-granddaughter Debby.

The Russian Empire of Marcus Rotkovitch's childhood was a troubled one, destabilized by both an economic crisis and the constitutional crisis of 1905. With a widespread sense of chaos among the population, antisemitism resurfaced, along with many hundreds of pogroms taking place in 1905 and 1906. Antisemitism, espoused by numerous newspapers and rekindled by the Black Hundreds militia, again struck the Jewish population, particularly revolutionaries and students, causing a thousand deaths and wounding several thousand in more than three hundred cities. On learning that czarist troops had slain 130 peaceful demonstrators in Saint Petersburg on January 9 (New Style date: January 22), 1905—a tragedy known since as Bloody Sunday—socialist sympathizers, particularly among the Jewish population, turned to collective action. They declared a general strike, to which the Russian government, already weakened by the Russo-Japanese war and a spiraling economy, answered with the issuance of the October Manifesto (which granted additional civil liberties) and the institution of an elected consultative assembly, the Duma, to ratify all laws.

On January 15, 1906, the city of Dvinsk greeted the new promise by the czar to establish this deliberative body with a spectacular festive gathering, which was repressed by the authorities and resulted in nine executions. Although Dvinsk's Jews had been spared in the massacres, the city was in turmoil, with various rallies organized by the Poalei Zion, a Marxist-Zionist labor movement, and, more important, by the Jewish Socialist Labor Bund, whose strongest and most active chapter was located there because of the sizable local Jewish workforce. It is likely that in October 1905 Yacov Rotkovitch joined the Bund during the impressive rally organized in support of the victims who had been slain only a week earlier. However, this last demonstration, also repressed by the police, triggered a downward spiral of violence: martial law was declared, along with a curfew, and any gathering of more than three people was prohibited. "My father was a militant social democrat," Rothko would later say. "He was profoundly Marxist and violently anti-religious, partly because in Dvinsk ... the orthodox Jews were a repressive majority." Indeed, Yacov Rotkovitch organized clandestine meetings at his home to discuss the ideas of the Bund, whose pamphlets he secretly read at the synagogue when he found himself bored. Gradually, however, the hopes of the enlightened bourgeoisie, who, just like Yacov, believed in the assimilation of the Jewish people into the Russian Empire, grew fainter.

During 1905 and 1906, hundreds of pogroms erupted in the Pale. In October 1905, during the most brutal of them, almost six hundred Jews were killed in Odessa. And, even outside the Pale, on June 1, 1906, in Bialystok (on the border of Belorussia and Lithuania), two hundred people were murdered, seven hundred were wounded, and hundreds of houses and shops were destroyed or looted. Day after day, the pogroms grew closer to Dvinsk: Minsk, Orsha, Vitebsk, Gorodok, Polotsk, Riga, Rechitsa ... Did Yacov Rotkovitch feel the pressure closing in? Marcus was not yet three months old at the time of the Bialystok massacre, and it seems that the event precipitated his father's religious turnaround. Indeed, from that very moment the opinions of the Dvinsk pharmacist began to change, even to harden. "I was certainly aware that my grandfather was affected by the pogroms of 1905," Kate Rothko would comment one day while discussing her family's history. "I don't think they reached Daugavpils [Dvinsk's name after 1920] itself, but they certainly were close enough that people were very scared. And I understand they had a great effect on my grandfather, who had been a pretty secular man. The whole thing drove him to become a bit more religious." Whatever the cause, Yacov suddenly decided to return to his Jewish community and join forces with it. In a radical shift, he enrolled Marcus in a Talmudic school, which was in stark contrast to the educational settings he had chosen for his first three children. While his siblings attended nonreligious institutions—Sonia a Russian school, and Moses and Albert a secular Jewish one—Marcus would go to the Talmud Torah,14 Yacov firmly decided.

Many questions remain unanswered about this period. Did the family provide Marcus a private Hebrew tutor at home in his earliest childhood? Later, did he attend a traditional heder or a liberal one? In any event, those years at the Talmud Torah—from ages four to ten—made a lasting impression on the young Rotkovitch. But what could such a religious reversal have possibly meant to the liberal-minded pharmacist of Dvinsk? Ever since Yacov left the shtetl, nothing in his increasingly assimilated lifestyle could have foretold a return to tradition or, in his granddaughter's words, to this sudden "burst of piety." As suggested by historian Michael Stanislawski, such transformations often happened "in response to the new theories of nationalism and socialism [which were] then gripping the minds and hearts of many," and not the direct result of "physical attacks against the Jews." In fact, didn't Yacov Rotkovitch epitomize, to all appearances, the "new social type" described by historian Irving Howe? Indeed, assimilation had increasingly become the ultimate aspiration of many Jewish people who had moved out of the shtetl. "Yet by a final historical reckoning," Howe explains, "the nascent labor and socialist movements achieved something of great consequence for the Jews. In these early struggles there began to emerge a new social type who would become the carrier and often the pride, of Yiddish culture: the self-educated worker-intellectual, still bearing the benchmarks of the Talmud Torah, forced to struggle into his maturity for those elements of learning that his grandsons would accept as their birthright, yet fired by a vision of a universal humanist culture and eager to absorb the words of Marx, Tolstoy, and the other masters of the nineteenth century." Undoubtedly, a complex set of circumstances got the better of Yacov Rotkovitch's natural development: the poverty plaguing the Pale of Settlement affected the business of the pharmacist, whose "legendary generosity," according to his daughter Sonia, did very little for his financial success. Besides, the fear that his two older sons "would be drafted into the army, where Jews could be killed for sport," surely completed Rotkovitch's transformation and accounted for his decision to enroll Marcus in the Talmud Torah. Given that Talmudic students were usually exempt from the army, wasn't this gesture the ultimate way to protect his younger son?


Excerpted from Mark Rothko by Annie Cohen-Solal. Copyright © 2013 Annie Cohen-Solal. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Annie Cohen-Solal's books include Sartre: A Life (a best-seller translated into sixteen languages), Painting American (Académie des Beaux arts Prize), and Leo & His Circle: The Life of Leo Castelli (ArtCurial Prize).

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