Although he would later switch to much darker paintings, as a reflection of his changing mood, it is his use of warmer colours such as the reds and blues found here that really found favour with the public and academics alike. There was a freedom to the rectangles of colour during this time, where the edges would be deliberately hazy, allowing the initial wash across the canvas to merge in. There were many more layers and techniques used within these paintings than one might imagine, making it essential to see a Rothko up close in person. The size of the canvas was also important, as he wanted us to stand close to each mural and feel a part of the painting, rather than simply wandering by and taking a brief look.
No 1 Royal Red and Blue received one of the larger prices when in auction in 2012 at Sotheby's. The price tag of $75m represents the popularity of the artist's original paintings, as well as the relative prominence of this particular piece with in his career. Rothko completed this work in 1954 and you can see a large photograph of the painting here. He was truly the spearhead of the Color Field School and was a key member in American art during this fruitful period for the nation. They had long lived in the shadows of European artists, and were now leading the way for the first time. This would continue with the likes of Basquiat, a graffiti artist of particular note who also was important in representing the African-American artistic community.
Within this abstract work we find the royal red, a large dominant rectangle at the top of the painting which does not quite reach the tip of the canvas. The wash across the canvas is kept visible right around the composition, almost framing the rectangles. We then find a purple rectangle adjoined below, with a further blue shape finishing the design. One must say that the blue immediately takes your attention because of its brightness, even though the royal red above is actually larger. A second examination reveals that these are not perfectly constructed blocks of colour, such as you might find in classic Mondrian paintings, such as Broadway Boogie Woogie and Composition with Red, Blue and Yellow. Instead, there are all manner of techniques across each plain which provide interest for those looking closely enough. Additionally, there are dabs of white paint at the foot of the canvas which again help to merge the rectangles in with the original background colour.
"...I paint very large pictures precisely because I want to be very intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience. However you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn't something you command..."
Rothko is known to have become concerned with several elements around his colour field paintings. Firstly, he believed that no-one would ever truly understand them as well as himself, and so he was always keen to educate others on just what exactly he was trying to achieve. This became more of a problem with his later, dark paintings, such as Untitled (Black on Grey), or his work for the Rothko Chapel, where some members of the artistic community were not even sure if he was being serious, such was the extreme nature of his abstract work towards the end of his career. These brighter, earlier pieces did seem a little easier to connect with. Secondly, the display of them within larger museums which would be inevitable as his fame soared would concern him that they might be lost within such immense display walls. He preferred smaller venues for a period, where the dominance of his colours could take over the visitors more easily.
The history of art is full of ideas and techniques being passed on from one generation to the next, adding more on top each time. Colour was not something that suddenly became of interest in the 1950s, it had been rising in importance for several centuries and we can even go back to the likes of Titian for examples of how artists considered it's use very carefully. That was a long way, however, from the contemporary artists who would put in ahead of all else and this idea was perhaps influenced by the work of Henri Matisse, in The Red Studio. Rothko acknowledged this influence in his own words and may have developed an entirely different style were it not for his discovery and study of this famous French painter. Additionally, we saw Van Gogh's implementations of human emotions into his work and Rothko did much the same, albeit within a particularly abstract, contemporary style. We also all remember Munch's focus on the different states of mental health, too, within his expressionist artworks, such as with Despair and Anxiety, which in turn were likely inspired by the Durer's Melancholia.
Rothko himself would also speak about how these paintings were intended to represent human emotions for us all, not really focusing on his own mood at the time. This may well have been the case, but it cannot be denied that his own mental balance did influence that colours that he went for at different times of his career and it also is no coincidence that his work became much darker just prior to his death. He also mentioned about how describing an emotion of us all allowed him a much greater freedom as an artist than if he had just focused internally in his own mind. He could also then embrace certain feelings that perhaps he did not experience much himself but others did.