Robert Motherwell was born in Aberdeen, Washington on January 24, 1915. Due to his asthma, he was brought up largely on the Pacific Coast and spent most of his school years in California. There he developed a love for the broad spaces and bright colours that later emerged as essential characteristics of his abstract paintings.
Between 1932 and 1937, Motherwell studied painting at California School of Fine Arts, San Francisco and received a BA in philosophy from Stanford University. In 1940, he moved to New York to study at Columbia University, where he was encouraged by Meyer Schapiro to devote himself to painting rather than scholarship. In 1942 Motherwell began to exhibit in New York, and in 1944 he had his first one-man show at Peggy Guggenheims Art of This Century gallery.
From the mid-1940s, Motherwell became the leading spokesman for avant-garde art in America. His circle came to include William Baziotes, David Hare, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko, with whom he eventually started the Subjects of the Artist School (194849). In 1958-59, Motherwell was included in The New American Painting exhibition, initiated by the Museum of Modern Art, which travelled across Europe. That year he travelled in Spain and France, where he started his Iberia series. During the 1960s, Motherwell exhibited widely in both America and Europe and in 1965 was given a major retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art; this show subsequently travelled to Amsterdam, London, Brussels, Essen, and Turin.
In 1970, Motherwell moved to Greenwich, Connecticut, and during the 1970s he had important retrospective exhibitions in a number of European cities, including Düsseldorf, Stockholm, Vienna, Paris, Edinburgh, and London. In 1977, he was given a major mural commission for the new wing of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Robert Motherwell died in Provincetown, Massachusetts on July 16, 1991.