Figure in Black (Girl with Stripes)

  • Robert Motherwell, Figure in Black (Girl with Stripes), 1947, oil and paper on fiberboard, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Dedalus Foundation and museum purchase, 1995.2.1, © 1994 Dedalus Foundation, Inc.

The black stripes at the right of Figure in Black (Girl with Stripes) can be read as long, painted strokes executed by a figure who looks directly out at the viewer. In it Motherwell asserts the primal act of the artist and links the simple black stick figure with prehistoric painters who applied marks to the walls of ancient caves. In 1947 Motherwell remarked that all the figures in his paintings were self-portraits, and he related the color ochre to his childhood in Southern California. Certain childhood impressions last a lifetime. …The color I’ve consistently used throughout my painting life has been yellow ochre, and the hills of California most of the year are yellow ochre.”

Modern Masters: Midcentury Abstraction from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2008

Robert Motherwell experimented with abstract figure painting during the 1940s, creating images that resembled primitive cave drawings. Here, the textured background of chalky white and yellow ocher sets off the thick black brushstrokes. Motherwell was inspired by the psychologist Carl Jung, who wrote that creativity was an instinctive drive that comes from deep within our unconscious. Figure in Black is an abstract painting of colors and lines, but it also suggests deep-seated symbols that we do not fully understand. Motherwell devoted most of his life to working in limited color and especially enjoyed working with the inexhaustible” mysteries of black (1977 interview by Barbaralee Diamonstein, in Arnason, Robert Motherwell, 1982).

Perhaps I feel happiest when, during the creative process, I simply let work pour out.’” Motherwell, interview by Barbaralee Diamonstein, 1977, in Arnason, Robert Motherwell, 1982

Figure in Black (Girl with Stripes)
Not on view
23 7819 34 in. (60.750.2 cm.)
Credit Line

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Gift of the Dedalus Foundation and museum purchase

Mediums Description
oil and paper on fiberboard
  • Figure female
  • Abstract
Object Number
Linked Open Data
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