[Harvard mural study]

7 x 6 in. (17.8 x 15.2 cm)
Estate/Inventory Number
Collections of Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko. © Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko
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—a rich plum-colored structure framing a central portal set against a background of semi-transparent white paint over crimson construction paper—does not resemble any single canvas from the Harvard cycle. Compositionally, it most closely relates to Panel Three and Untitled (Harvard Mural sketch), which is understood to be either a full-sized study or an alternative version for Panel Three (figs. 2, 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.
[Harvard mural study]
1. Harvard mural triptych—Panel One, Panel Two, Panel Three—installed in Holyoke Center, Harvard University, 1964. Photograph Courtesy Harvard Art Museums © President and Fellow of Harvard College.
[Harvard mural study]
3. Mark Rothko, Untitled (Harvard Mural sketch), 1962, oil on canvas, 109 7/8 x 92 1/2 in., National Gallery of Art, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1986.43.168, © Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko. [Anfam 736]