Baptismal Scene

Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko, Baptismal Scene, 1945, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Purchase, 46.12 © 2023 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko


Øystein Ustvedt:

There is something dreamlike and fluid about this image. It has no clear main motif, but a multitude of smaller shapes and color fields that seem to appear and disappear one after the other.



Øystein Ustvedt, curator at the National Museum, is speaking about “Baptismal Scene” from 1945.

This painting is the first artwork by Mark Rothko to be purchased by an art museum. In 1946, it was selected for an exhibition in The Whitney Museum of American Art, which acquired it for its collection.


Øystein Ustvedt:

Do we see the suggestion of two upright human figures? Do we recognize the outlines of a scene or a landscape with a spiral fountain spouting water?


The fluid theme is enhanced by the painting medium itself. Watercolors are easily soluble and allow for creating different degrees of saturation. Here, large sections alternate with thin, light veils of colour with covering spots and patterns. Note the careful use of strong contrasting colours: orange and blue against a background of lots of gray and pink.



After many years of activity as an artist, Rothko gained increased recognition in this time. When The Whitney Museum purchased this work, it marked the beginning of a major breakthrough.


Øystein Ustvedt:

It is worth noting that Rothko chose to use this particular painting as an illustration for a text that has remained important. Rothko’s text is concerned with the suitability of abstraction over figuration in creating art that is surprising, unfamiliar and transcendent.


Actor portraying Mark Rothko:

I think of my pictures as dramas; the shapes in the pictures are the performers. They have been created from the need for a group of actors who are able to move dramatically without embarrassment and execute gestures without shame. Neither the action nor the actors can be anticipated or described in advance. They begin as an unknown adventure in an unknown space.