Royal Vernon Line Composition Book

1946 – 1952
Collections of Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko, © Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko
The inside front cover of this composition book is imprinted with a small logo that reads “VERNON ROYAL LINE,” indicating the brand name, Royal, in large capital letters and the variety of composition book, Vernon Line, in smaller type. The inside cover is also stamped with “Golde’s Stationers, 1391 Sixth Ave., New York City.” After Rothko and Mary Alice (Mell) Beistle (1921–1970) married in March 1945, they lived for nine years at 1288 Sixth Avenue, just a few blocks from the stationers, suggesting that Rothko may have purchased the book at Golde’s.

This composition book has black-and-white marbled cardboard covers and contains 124 unnumbered and unruled pages (62 sheets). It has a sewn binding and a black fabric tape-covered spine. The book contains 43 pages of drawings and 14 pages of handwritten notes. There are 67 blank pages throughout the book, including an uninterrupted stretch of 24 blank pages near the middle of the book. At the back of the book are 39 drawings, all on consecutive versos as opposed to rectos, strongly suggesting that Rothko may have begun working from the back of the book to the front. All but two of the drawings are in ink; one is in graphite (incomplete) and one in graphite and colored pencil. One drawing is a study for a holiday card that reads “MERRY CHRISTMAS / and Happy New Year / Mell & Mark Rothko.” The text of this page is upside down relative to the book’s front and inside covers.

Most of the 39 drawings at the back of the book appear to date from 1946/1947, based on comparison with other works on paper and canvas, although one or two drawings on the last pages of the book call to mind canvases from 1948 and 1949. None, however, relates precisely as a direct study or sketch. The ink drawings were all made with the same or a similar type of fountain pen. Because they are on consecutive pages, it seems reasonable to assume a cohesive and relatively short period of execution (1946/1947) rather than a more extended engagement (1946/1949). As there is little evidence to further pinpoint dating, the inclusive date range of 1946/1947 has been adopted for all drawings in the back section of this sketchbook.

After completing these 39 drawings, Rothko appears to have set the book aside for a number of years. Returning to it later, he began to work from the front of the book, writing on 14 of the first 17 pages (3 are blank) what appear to be course descriptions and lecture notes. In December 1950 Rothko secured an assistant professorship in the department of design at Brooklyn College, where he taught from February 1951 to June 1954. Among the courses he instructed were the following, along with their course numbers from the Brooklyn College bulletin of 1952–1953: Contemporary Art (15.2), Theory of Art (17.1), and Elements of Drawing (33.5). Rothko used the course numbers to head his notes at the beginning of the composition book and included as well handwritten verbatim drafts of the course descriptions printed in the Brooklyn College bulletin. For example, Rothko’s contemporary art course description printed in the bulletin matches exactly Rothko’s handwritten précis: “Comparative study of twentieth century developments in all fields of visual expression, their interrelationship and their origins in the life of our times” [Brooklyn College Bulletin, College of Liberal Arts and Science, 1952–1953, courtesy of Brooklyn College Library Archive]. The text on the first page of these course notes is in ink, whereas subsequent pages are written in graphite. The penmanship shifts from cursive to all capitals, and the syntax and format change over the course of the notes from full sentences to bullet points and even diagrammatic outlines. It is unclear if the text was written in a single sitting or on multiple occasions.

Following Rothko’s handwritten text and preceding the run of 24 blank pages are 4 drawings, 2 on facing pages and 2 on the following two rectos. The last of these contains four small independent drawings. The drawings on all four pages approximate the composition of his classic format paintings, although they do not appear to relate to specific canvases. The proximity of the drawings to Rothko’s Brooklyn College course notes from about 1952 suggests that the drawings were almost certainly made no earlier.

Only pages with drawings have individual catalog entries in this online resource. All pages can be viewed by clicking the image of the sketchbook cover above. It is important to note that many of the images in the entries are shown upside down or rotated to some degree with respect to the orientation of the composition book itself. While it is challenging to determine for certain the intended orientation of these abstract drawings, a couple of the works offer some clues into Rothko’s manipulation of the sketchbook. The drawing on the last page of this book (perhaps the first drawing he made in it) appears to be horizontal. It is likely that Rothko drew with the book rotated sideways so that the working page was close to him and the back cover opened away from him. With the book oriented thus, Rothko’s dominant right hand would have rested on the substantial thickness of the book’s pages rather than on the book’s comparatively less supportive back cover. As Rothko worked toward the front of the book, he appears also to have rotated it upside down, as in the case of the drawing with the holiday greeting. In determining the orientation of the drawings in the back section of this book, therefore, we have considered Rothko’s willingness to diverge from the conventional orientation of the sketchbook.