Robert Motherwell (1915-1991)

The Philosopher Artist

Robert Motherwell’s art is art that tries to engage you with the act of painting. When I look at his canvas, I feel like I’m more than a witness, invited, almost seduced, to become a co-collaborator in the creative process.

It’s hard to stand in front of one of his imposing Elegy to the Spanish Republic series and not be aware of the energy in the process, the strong bold statements in black and white or earth colors, splats of paint, the rough edges and so on. At the same time, I don’t feel overwhelmed. I have the sense of a cooler intelligence at work, monitoring balance, composition, dynamics.

Robert Motherwell Mexican Night
Mexican Night Silkscreen Print,
Image from Easyart

What I think I see is tension between the spontaneous and the reflective, two opposing principles, black and white, life and death.

Motherwell's work can be monumental, brooding and sometimes lyrical.

Elegant is an adjective often applied to Robert Motherwell’s paintings, and this combination of the sensually seductive and intellectually cool - Motherwell studied philosophy prior to committing to a career in art - makes him for I think, one of the most enduring of the New York abstract expressionists.

Robert Motherwell Je taime
Je t'aime art print,
Image from Easyart

Life in Brief

Robert Motherwell came to New York in 1941 as one of the group of artists emerging in what would be termed the New York School of Abstract Expressionists. He had previously studied philosophy, and became interested in modernism and painting following a trip to Europe in 1938.

Robert Motherwell Samura Print
Samura N.1, 1974 (Silkscreen print)
Image from Easyart
Robert Motherwell Cambridge Collage
Cambridge Collage
Image from Easyart

Back in New York, meeting some of the exiled French surrealists – Marcel Duchamp, Andre Masson and Max Ernst - influenced Motherwell. A subsequent trip to Mexico in 1941 confirmed his decision to dedicate his career to painting.

The influence of the surrealist painter Roberto Matta whom he had met on that trip resulted in Motherwell starting to experiment with "automatic drawing" and these experiments continued in New York in the company of Jackson Pollock, William Baziotes and Lee Krasner.

Throughout his long career he remained a writer becoming one of twentieth century art’s most articulate advocates. He produced writings, paintings, prints and collages up until his death in 1991.


Motherwell, like many of the Abstract Expressionists was influenced by war. In 1937, he attended a rally held in San Francisco about the Spanish Civil war. This began a relationship with a cause that was to engage him over much of his creative life.

His enduring series "Elegy to the Spanish Republic" paintings were made in a period spanning three decades. Motherwell described the works as a sort of  "lamentation or funeral song" in the wake of the war.

Matisse and Picasso are usually credited as being major artistic influences. Motherwell himself cited Matisse as a principal influence on his work.

Distinctive Features

Robert Motherwell's work is characterised by a strong use of black, white and ochres, with occasional accents.

A particular shade of sky blue has become so identified with his work that it was termed “Motherwell blue”.

Another characteristic of Motherwell's output is the creation of works in series. In addition to the "Elegy to the Spanish Republic" he produced a well known series of paintings entitled "Je t'aime" each one with the phrase visible on the canvas.