Born in the Russian Empire in 1903, Mark Rothko would not only become one of America's most celebrated abstract painters, but also a preeminent figure in 20th century art. Although Rothko did not personally subscribe to any one school, he is best known for the color field paintings he produced from 1949 to 1970. These works concentrated on the expressive possibilities of broad color fields and the physical response engendered by a surrounding atmosphere of luminous optical effects. Like many artists of his time, Rothko's early years were marked by struggle and a lack of recognition in the New York City area. However, the resale value of his paintings has grown tremendously in the decades following his passing in 1970. Today, his work hangs in many of the world’s top museums.

In 1921, Rothko entered Yale University as a scholarship student. His initial intention was to become an engineer or an attorney, and he took courses in English, French, European history, mathematics, physics, biology, economics, and philosophy. Classmates recall Rothko being a voracious reader who hardly needed to study to make good grades. Along with a friend, Rothko also started a satirical magazine they called the “Yale Saturday Evening Pest.” However, at the end of his freshman year in 1922, Rothko's scholarship was not renewed, and he worked as a waiter and delivery boy to support his studies. Figuring that he could learn more by himself, Rothko dropped out of Yale at the end of his sophomore year.

The next time the painter was seen back on the New Haven campus was 46 years later, when Yale awarded him an honorary degree. The citation read: “As one of the few artists who can be counted among the founders of a new school of American painting, you have made an enduring place for yourself in the art of this country... In admiration of your influence, which has nourished young artists throughout the world, Yale confers upon you the degree of Doctor of Fine Arts."