During the summer of 1933 Rothko and Edith Sachar (1912–1981), who married in November 1932, hitchhiked from New York to Portland, Oregon, to visit Rothko’s mother [Maurice Roth, oral history interview, September 15, 1984, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution]. This watercolor was likely made at that time, when Rothko and Edith camped in Forest Park in the Tualatin Mountains west of downtown Portland. Rothko produced numerous watercolors there, including this elevated western view of the Willamette River and the valley beyond (see Related Works on Paper). During a later visit to Portland, in 1955, Rothko mentioned to an interviewer that his favorite view in the city was from Terwilliger Boulevard, a scenic parkway planned in 1903 by John Olmsted and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., that winds along the hills west of the city near Forest Park. It is possible that Terwilliger Boulevard provided Rothko’s precise vantage point for this watercolor. The prominent structure on the near riverbank is the scrap metal business Alaska Junk; across the river are three prominent gas holder tanks; just visible to the right of the tanks are the piers of the Ross Island Bridge, opened in 1926 (fig. 1). Mount Hood, which would be visible from this point, is hinted at in the cloudlike peak at the upper edge of the sheet.
Adhesive residue on both sides of the sheet indicates that the work was overmatted and mounted at some point, possibly for exhibition during Rothko’s lifetime. It may have been shown in a summer 1933 exhibition at the Museum of Art in Portland. It matches a critic’s description of works in the show: “The water colors are chiefly landscapes and studies of forests in which the artist has sought to retain the effect of complexity one finds in the out-of-doors and to show its ultimate order and beauty. A hint of his admiration for Cézanne is in these water colors. They are carefully thought out and in no way theatrical or dramatic” [Catherine Jones, “Noted One-Man Show Artist One-Time Portland Resident,” Sunday Oregonian, July 30, 1933, 5].
This work might also have been shown as “Portland” in Rothko’s first one-man show at Contemporary Arts in New York in November 1933, although the signature (“Mark Rothko”) calls this into question. It was not until 1940 that Rothko began using a truncated version of his given name, Marcus Rothkowitz. While the watercolor was almost certainly created during the 1933 visit to Portland, it would have been atypical of the artist to exhibit an unsigned work. The number assigned during Rothko’s inventory of 1968/1969 erroneously signifies a creation date of 1925–1927 for this work.
1. View of South Portland near the Ross Island Bridge. City of Portland (OR) Archives, A2004-002.1844.
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.