VIDEO: A Moment in Art History: Mark Rothko’s Seagram Murals – A Dramatic Commission Cancellation

It was the opportunity of a lifetime: an enormous commission for a well-known company’s high-class dining space. In today’s Moment in Art History, we’ll talk about the commission’s dramatic cancellation and Mark Rothko’s motives for walking away from a major project.


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Parts of the video script were sourced from Wikipedia:

About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of, and founder of the Art Business Academy. Jason has helped thousands of artists prepare themselves to more effectively market their work, build relationships with galleries and collectors, and turn their artistic passion into a viable business.


  1. Jason – now that I’m a part of your Art Academy you’ll probably think I’m buttering you up – BUT honestly Mark Rothko is my one of my VERY favorite artists! Some of my earlier works were inspired by Rothko … or so I thought until I saw original Rothko in person at the MOMA in LA !! They made me cry! Seeing them in history books were no comparison to the depth of color in the originals- so my interpretations of his work in my style were very shallow!
    I ALSO had the opportunity to see RED – what a great and informative representation of him & his work!! Still an absolute inspiration to me!

  2. Rothko is my all time favorite artist. I too seek out his work when I travel. The Rothko room in the Tate Modern, where some of his Seagram series works are displayed, is a spiritual sanctuary for me. It’s the first place I visit when in London. I can’t imagine these pieces being displayed in a pretentious dining room, or any space with a lot of noise and distractions, or where they are not the focus of attention. Good call by Rothko!

  3. Thank you for your short video on Mark Rothko. Don’t know if you’ve seen any of the videos on Rothko. I knew the late William Scharf. Bill Scharf assisted Mark Rothko and was a close friend of the Rothko family. He’s been interviewed so much on Rothko. If you’ve not heard him, you might look him up. William Scharf was a fantastic painter, created great cartoons, magnificent person and instructor. Phyllis Tracy Malinow

  4. A wonderful video. Concise and insightful. I enjoyed it and learned some more intriguing things about Rothko, whose art I’ve always liked.

  5. I really like Rothko’s work, but I LOVED the Four Seasons Restaurant (my pre-artist days) and I can’t really envision those murals in that space. I don’t buy the backstory reasons—come from a similar background—as the main reason. Personality/temperament, perhaps. In any case, thank you for the story—I didn’t know it. And by the way, I really like the original Four Season cookbook. The chicken pie recipe is very accurate to the real thing.

  6. I saw Red in my city a few years ago and thought it portrayed the artist’s struggle well. When I saw Rothko’s paintings in a museum I felt they needed the silence to take them in. They are mysterious, emotional and haunting….something beyond the decorative, and to me depict the struggling human condition.
    Thank you Jason for this good presentation. I especially enjoyed all the photos and specifics about the commission that helped Rothko paint these amazing works.

  7. I love Mark Rothko’s work. I also identify with his quote: “A painting is not a picture of an experience. It IS an experience.” I keep this quote in mind as I create every single piece of art in my own studio!

  8. Rothko was troubled and brilliant. Another creative genius. I didn’t get his work, at first, Then I watched Simon Schama’s documentary on Rothko in Schama’s Power of Art series. That was it. I was hooked.

    I don’t doubt Rothko’s authenticity and eccentricity. He must have been an intense individual to have committed suicide with the conviction he took. I’m wondering what his withdraw from the Seagram’s project did to the value of the paintings and did that move increase his mystique and elevate his position as a sought-after artist? He was a very intelligent man. He had to have known the outcome and weight out the effect of that decision.

  9. We produced the play “RED” a couple of years ago and it is a most powerful event that delves not only into into the creative process but also one tragic artist’s temperament. We recreated some of the series that hung above the stage and changed as the play progressed. The paintings strengths cannot be felt through photos or videos. One has to be in their presence to fully appreciate Rothko’s language.

  10. Thank you for sharing the video about Mark Rothko. I live in Washington, DC. The Phillips Collection owns some Rothko paintings and has a room with subdued lighting to display them. Whenever I visit the Phillips, I spend time in that room and then leave to see The Boating Party by Renoir. I hope the Phillips reopens soon.

  11. Such a giant mismatch between artist and collector! How on earth did the Seagrams not know that Rothko would not work well for them ahead of time? The video’s report of Rothko’s comments on the Seagram dining space made me laugh!

  12. I keep coming back to Rothko. He is a kind of touchstone for me. I first saw his work in NYC “New York Paintings and Sculpture 1940-1970” in NYC while a student.

    Even that first encounter was powerful.
    There was so much energy and yet when you get close, there is no mooring no place to hold onto. I am always set adrift in the color which is never a single color.
    His work requires that you stop what you are doing and turn aside. It is as much a spiritual turning aside as anything else. My experiences with the paintings is always beyond words.
    I would suggest that the withdrawn paintings and the last series now in the Rothko Chapel are a monument to the power applying paint to surface can have. He upends our assumptions and notions.
    “Red” is a powerful; play.

  13. Jason, I truly enjoy your “art history moments”. You really have a way of making a lecture feel like an intimate conversation, so that one listens and learns rather than feeling like taking notes. Your way of presenting an artist or other subject would have been a breath of fresh air in an art history class. I’m ordering the Breslin book. Thank you!

  14. I first saw some Rothko paintings in San Francisco in 2008. I was struck dumb which is an accomplishment for those who know me. I have been emotional in front of a few artists’ works. Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, the Vermeers in London, a show by Gaylon Hansen in Salt Lake City and any time I see a Rothko. Knowing his story and also seeing the play Red have added to the mystique and emotion. Thanks for this talk. He was a giant.

  15. The Rothko chapel in Houston is part of the Menil. I have been in the chapel multiple times but only for a few minutes—the sense of the artist’s depression is overwhelming. Many people say they find it meditative but for me it is incredibly heavy, sad, and I just cannot stay for more than a minute or two. It was completed a few months before his suicide. Outside is a sculpture by Barnett Newman, also a very sad piece. Compared to Calder’s fun fantasy creatures located in some of the grassy areas nearby, it is an interesting contrast.

    I always find it interesting to discover so many people do not feel the emotion of the artist in a work.

  16. I enjoyed your erudite video VERY much in contrast with my dislike of Rothko’s work! He should have stayed in Russia with the Bolsheviks! Having enjoyed the wonderful space of the Four Seasons Restaurant many times some fifty years ago (despite the fact that I could only afford to drink “Green Parrots” at the bar and never enjoy the fabled cuisine served there with Georg Jenson silver hollow and flatware). The ultimately designed and decorated space was a magnificent artistic experience without Rohko’s depressing work! I am SO pleased that Rothko utimately refused his comission of dreadful paintings. They would have been awful in that glorious space deigned by Phillip Johnson! It was SO much more pleasing with the Kline paintings that I believe were hung there! Let there be no confusing comparison with the Sistine commission!

  17. Marvelous descriptive article in today’s (Saturday’s 9/19/2020) Wall Street Journal magazine
    regarding the restoration of the restoration of the Rothko Chapel.

  18. Thank you for the history. Art is more than the work itself. It is ever influenced by the feelings of the artists who create. As a mural painter myself (small scale), It seems a bit dishonest of any muralist to take on a project to promote/enhance an environment or social atmosphere they don’t wish to perpetuate, no matter what the financial reward. Rothko had to have gone into the deal knowing that he had great disdain for what they represented. Conversely, I find it perplexing that Seagram chose him as the artist to do such an expansive project when they had to have known how he felt about them. It seems as if they might have anticipated his withdrawl. Sounds like both sides lacked some discernment.

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