Frankenthaler and Motherwell

Robert Motherwell & Helen Frankenthaler – A Match Made in Heaven

They seemed like the perfect couple. Both were popular painters and both came from fairly wealthy families. And they both enjoyed throwing extravagant parties for all of their artist friends. But there is definitely more to the story than just your typical romance when it comes to Robert Motherwell and Helen Frankenthaler. Here are some interesting details about these important American Abstract Expressionist artists, including who they are, their time together, and their contribution to the art world.

Who is Robert Motherwell?

Robert Motherwell was born on January 24, 1915 in Aberdeen, Washington. He is also referred to as one of the founders of Abstract Expressionism. He is best known for adding accidental elements to his work, which characterized his unique painting style. Motherwell is also recognized for his mastery of the art of collage.

Untitled (Blue/Tan) from London Series II, 1971

Untitled (BlueTan) from London Series II, 1971


After receiving a scholarship to study art at only eleven years old, Motherwell later went on to receive degrees in aesthetics from Stanford and Harvard. Largely self-taught, his works have captured attention all over the world for their use of simplicity and fully embody the Abstract Expressionism movement. He is best known for his Elegy to the Spanish Republic series.

Motherwell played an important role as one of the earliest Abstract Expressionists. This post-World War II movement included Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, Max Ernst, Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, and other prominent artists.

Who is Helen Frankenthaler?

Born December 12, 1928, Helen Frankenthaler is best known as an Abstract Expressionist and the creator of the “soak-stain” process. She was born into a wealthy Manhattan family, which enabled her to study art from a young age. Their frequent vacations throughout her childhood allowed her to develop a fondness for nature and a love of the ocean. That would definitely be inspirational factors later in her work.

Broome street at night, 1987

Broome street at night, 1987


Frankenthaler’s most famous work is the “Mountains and Sea”. An abstract painting that involves her “soak-stain” method of mixing turpentine with oil paints and pouring them onto the canvas. The painting was inspired by a trip to Nova Scotia, where she fell in love with the scenery and was inspired to create.

“Frankenthaler’s mastery of paint reveals her training under influential and accomplished instructors. She studied with Rufino Tamayo while at the Dalton School, New York, with Paul Feeley (1910-66) at Bennington College, Vermont (1946-9), and privately with Wallace Harrison in 1949 and Hans Hofmann in 1950. In that year she met Clement Greenberg, and through him, became acquainted with Willem and Elaine de Kooning, David Smith, Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Barnett Newman and other members of the New York School.”

-Hollis Taggart Galleries

Frankenthaler is one of the most renowned female artists of the American Abstract Expressionist movement. Other prominent American female artists from this era include Joan Mitchell, Lee Krasner and Grace Hartigan.

The Meeting of Two Brilliant Minds

Despite an age difference of over thirteen years, Frankenthaler and Motherwell started an intense and brief courtship in 1958. Although there is not much information available about where or how they met. They were often spotted around the general social circles of Abstract Expressionist artists of the time, making it highly probable that they were introduced by friends.

The pair married the same year and continued to travel, throw lavish parties with their friends, and raise their two daughters, Lise and Jeannie.

Married to Their Work and Each Other

The two continued to work side-by-side during the duration of the marriage. While most art experts will tell you there’s no mistaking a Motherwell painting for a Frankenthaler one. But there are many similarities in style from pieces during this time. For example, the use of specific color tones in their work is explained by the couple sharing paint supplies. T and their frequent travels are often showcased as parallel inspiration for their work.

Frankenthaler and Motherwell

Robert Motherwell and Helen Frankenthaler at their wedding lunch, April 6, 1958. Photograph by Hans Namuth courtesy Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona © 1991 Hans Namuth Estate


Later in life, Frankenthaler was asked what period of time she would most like to revisit. Her answer? The first few years with Bob. For the pair, this was an intense time of happiness, travel, and art creation that the couple would cherish for the rest of their lives.

The End of an Era

In 1971, Motherwell and Frankenthaler divorced after thirteen years of marriage. Both continued to paint and became faculty members at different prestigious schools. Motherwell at Hunter College and Frankenthaler at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. Both remarried and continued to create and teach for the latter years of their lives. Motherwell died in 1991 and Frankenthaler in 2011.

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