This watercolor of a plowed field set against a backdrop of dark mountain peaks shares features with one of three studies Rothko submitted to a mural competition for the post office of New Rochelle, New York. Rothko’s proposal, now lost, is known only from a photograph in the National Archives, Washington, DC (fig. 1). At the left edge of the largest study a young farmer drives his ox-drawn plow. The furrowed rows of his field, which stretch to railroad tracks that diagonally bisect the composition, are reminiscent of the boldly painted striations of the field in the current watercolor and a closely related signed version of this composition (see Related Works on Paper).
A revised announcement for the murals competition, dated August 23, 1938, recommended that artists “realize that the central idea of the Postal Service is communication, by which experience, ideas, and goods are shared throughout the civilized world” [National Archives, Washington, DC, RG:121 8000781]. Rothko, in attempting to fulfill this directive, depicted two landscapes and one seascape in which groups of figures in period dress gesticulate, respectively, toward a covered wagon, a ship under full sail, and a steam locomotive, evoking intercontinental and transcontinental commerce and communication of the past three centuries. The closing date of the mural competition was December 1, 1938, which suggests an approximate date of execution for the current work.
1. Photograph of Mark Rothko’s sketches submitted to the murals competition for the post office of New Rochelle, NY, National Archives, Washington, DC (121-MS-NEWR-R-18A).
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.