Marcus Rothkowitz was born in Dvinsk, Russia (now Daugavpils, Latvia), on 25 September 1903. In 1913 his family emigrated to the United States and settled in Portland, Oregon. He won a scholarship to Yale University, New Haven, which he attended from 1921 to 1923. When the scholarship was not renewed he moved to New York and enrolled at The Art Students League of New York, where he studied with Max Weber. He first showed his work in a group exhibition at the Opportunities Gallery, New York, in 1928, becoming friends with fellow exhibitor Milton Avery. His first solo exhibition was held five years later at the Museum of Art, Portland, in 1933. Like many of his contemporaries, he was employed by the Federal Art Project of the Works Project Administration, from 1936 to 1939. He became an American citizen in 1938 and, in 1940, began using the name Mark Rothko, although he did not change his name legally until 1959. From the late 1930s, his earlier style of broadly painted realism gave way to Surrealist-inspired mythological themes. He showed these works at his solo exhibition at the Art of This Century Gallery, New York, in 1945.

By 1947 Rothko's paintings had become wholly abstract and his compositions were made up of irregular areas of colour. He simplified this style, in 1949, to the loose rectangular, coloured shapes floating in vertical file that characterise his mature works. Over these years, he took on a variety of teaching jobs but, by the late 1950s, was able to support himself through sales of his work. In 1958 he was one of four Americans represented at the Venice biennale and, in the same year, he was commissioned to paint murals for the Seagram Building in New York. In 1961 the Museum of Modern Art, New York, mounted an exhibition of his work, which travelled to major European cities. In 1962 Rothko completed a series of murals for Harvard University and, in 1964, he started work on a commission to provide murals for a chapel in Houston, Texas, which was dedicated in February 1971. Rothko killed himself in his New York studio on 25 February 1970. A retrospective organised by the Guggenheim Museum, New York, toured the United States in 1978–79. Another retrospective was shown in Munich and Hamburg in 2008.