In 1960 Wassily Leontief, head of the Harvard Society of Fellows, invited Rothko to consider donating a selection of works to Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Negotiations began in earnest in the fall of 1961 and continued into early 1962, at which point Rothko began work on a mural cycle conceived for the penthouse dining room of the university’s recently built Holyoke Center. On December 27, 1962, six large canvases—now referred to as Panel One through Panel Six of the Harvard cycle—were delivered to the Holyoke Center (Anfam 737–742). In January 1963, Rothko traveled to Cambridge and selected and arranged five of them in the room, three as a triptych (Anfam 737–739, fig. 1). Rothko ultimately decided not to include the sixth panel in the arrangement. The other five panels were hung in 1964.
In preparation for this work, Rothko had moved into a new studio on First Avenue in New York at the beginning of January 1962 and had temporary walls constructed to replicate the layout of the Holyoke Center dining room. He was reported to have been at work on the cycle, presumably painting on canvas, by February 1962. He made at least six smaller-scale studies on canvas (Anfam 731–736) in addition to the six that were delivered to Harvard in December 1962 [James E. B. Breslin, Mark Rothko: A Biography (Chicago and London, 1993), 649n19; Karyn Esielonis, “The History of Rothko’s Harvard Murals,” in Marjorie B. Cohn, ed., Mark Rothko’s Harvard Murals (Cambridge, 1988), 12n13].
Before initiating work on canvas—presumably during the first two months of 1962 given the ongoing negotiations with Harvard—Rothko made a group of preliminary studies on paper, including this small watercolor. The color scheme of the current work, opaque white paint on crimson construction paper, resembles that of the canvas referred to as Panel Six (fig. 2). The composition of the current watercolor, though, more closely recalls the broad vertical elements—thicker than those in Panel Six—and narrow central portal of another canvas, referred to now as Untitled (Harvard Mural sketch) and understood to be either a full-sized study or an alternative version for Panel Three (fig. 3). See Related Works on Paper for additional watercolor and ink studies for the Harvard project.
Note: All six panels of the Harvard murals cycle have undergone a color shift since their creation (pigment analysis revealed the presence of light-sensitive lithol red). Unless otherwise noted, all images of the panels reflect the current state of the works.
Mark Rothko: Works on Paper will ultimately document approximately 2,600 works from public and private collections worldwide. Cataloging is ongoing, and works and information will be added to the site during the coming years.