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 drawing. It has been suggested that the drawing is a study for Panel One of the mural cycle, the left canvas of the triptych (fig. 2) [Annie Wilker and Jens Stenger, Mark Rothko’s Mural Sketches: Materials and Use / Scientific Analysis (Cambridge, MA, 2009), 7]. The inscription “First” in graphite in Rothko’s hand appears to support this observation, but the composition, in fact, resembles more closely the canvas referred to as Panel Six (fig. 3), which Rothko shipped to the Holyoke Center but ultimately decided not to include in the room. Perhaps Rothko initially conceived of Panel Six as the left panel of the triptych but changed his mind once on site in January 1963. The dimensions of Panel Six are closer to those of Panel Three, the right canvas of the triptych, than Panel One, and installing Panel Six as the left side of the triptych would have produced a more symmetrical composition, something that might not have satisfied the artist in situ. See Related Works on Paper for two other ink drawings that are likely 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.