Two Abstract Works of Art and Their Conveying of Contrasting Mood

Franz Kline’s Bethlehem and Mark Rothko’s Red, Orange, Orange on Red

Term Paper, 2011

9 Pages, Grade: 90/100



The final test of a painting, theirs, mine, any other, is: does the painter's emotions come across?

- Franz Kline

For many years, I have been fascinated by modern art. Although it is astonishing how earlier artists were able to depict humans and nature realistically and naturally, I always loved how modern artists expressed their opinion in the most abstract or unrealistic ways. Prior to my trip to the St. Louis Art Museum, I was planning on comparing Andy Warhol’s Most Wanted Men, no. 12. Frank B and Chuck Close’s Keith. However, those pieces have been removed a week before my visit due to reconstructions at the museum. Because of this, I decided on two other modern artists and their works that were unknown to me up to this point: Franz Kline’s Bethlehem from 1959-60 and Mark Rothko’s Red, Orange, Orange on Red from 1962. Although both paintings are abstract and may seem a lot alike in the first place, they are different when looking at them closer and comparing the composition and kind of work that was put into them. I will focus on the contrasting mood that is conveyed by Bethlehem and Red, Orange, Orange on Red and how this is achieved.

Franz Kline is an American artist who lived from 1910-1962. He used to paint landscapes and cities, but then switched to a rather abstract form of painting. Although abstract, his paintings are still named after towns and counties in his home state Pennsylvania. Kline is best known for putting richly textured black strokes on creamy-white grounds. A lot of times, his paintings include loosely brushed squares or rectangles, which are sometimes “open” or missing one side. Bethlehem is one of his black on creamy-white oil-on-canvas paintings named after a city and originated only a couple of years before the artist’s death.[1]

Mark Rothko was born in Russia and is an American artist who lived from 1903-1970. Like Kline, Rothko is an abstract painter. Many of his paintings show rectangular fields of color and light, which can be seen in Red, Orange, Orange on Red (oil on canvas) named after the colors prominent in the painting. The reason Rothko is painting large pictures is because he wants them to be intimate and human. Therefore, he prefers to “exhibit groups of his paintings hung low on the wall in relatively dim light, creating a unified, contemplative environment rather than a room of individual artworks.”[2]

Franz Kline’s Bethlehem is an oil-on-canvas picture painted in only two colors: black and a creamy white. The ground, which makes up the major part of the painting, is white. On top of it, Kline painted richly textured black strokes. There is one thick horizontal and one thick vertical stroke, making it appear as a cross. In the upper right corner, more strokes have been added, but there is still white ground coming through. The focus of the painting is therefore in the upper right corner, because black draws the attention of the viewer. It looks like the artist used a thick brush with which he applied the black color in long strokes from one side of the painting to the other.

Mark Rothko’s Red, Orange, Orange on Red is an oil-on-canvas picture painted in different levels of red and orange. Basically, it has three vertical blocks of color, separated and surrounded by a darker reddish-brown frame. The color block on the top is the smallest in height and is painted in a light red. The middle block is taking up most of the space of the painting and is colored in orange. The block at the bottom is about double the height of the block at the top and was painted in a reddish orange. The colors are arranged the way the title suggests: red, orange, and orange on red. The blocks are not accurate rectangles, but have fuzzy edges. The paint was probably applied with a brush. However, the brush was not as thick as the one used by Kline, and at some parts in the painting, the colors look thinned out.

Using the same medium (oil on canvas) and being from the same time (ca.1960- modern/abstract art), Kline’s Bethlehem and Rothko’s Red, Orange, Orange on Red pose two good examples for comparison. However, they are different in many ways, although they share similarities. The biggest apparent difference is the colors used in the paintings. Bethlehem is painted in black and white and there are no “real” colors applied. Red, Orange, Orange on Red uses varieties of red and orange. It appears as if Rothko used four different levels of color in his painting. Furthermore, Red, Orange, Orange on Red has a strong vertical focus, while Bethlehem has a vertical and horizontal line (similar to a cross) and a strong focus on the upper right corner. The lines in Kline’s painting are very thick and mostly strong, but in some parts the background is still coming through. In Rothko’s painting, the lines are hard to be seen. It looks more like blocks of color. Only the edges of the rectangular blocks of color look fuzzy and blurry. Bethlehem shows obvious brushwork, letting the viewer assume that Kline used a very thick brush. It seems like the lines have been applied in very long strokes from one side of the painting to another. The brushwork in Red, Orange, Orange on Red is less obvious. It is not clear if Rothko used long or short strokes or which size the brush was. However, it appears as if he used a thinner brush than Kline. Franz Kline’s Bethlehem has a thin, bright wooden frame. This is necessary to clearly separate the painting (which is mainly creamy white) from the wall (also white) where it is placed. Mark Rothko’s Red, Orange, Orange on Red has no frame. The transition from painting to wall is clear, and a frame would take away from the bold expression of the work of art. Furthermore, Bethlehem has no real light source, although the contrast between black and white makes the painting shine. On the contrary, Rothko applied different layers of color in his painting Red, Orange, Orange on Red and made them shine through top layers, therefore creating a light source.

Bethlehem and Red, Orange, Orange on Red may be easy to compare as they share the same style; however, there are features that would normally apply to paintings that cannot be used for comparison here. It does not apply to categorize any of those paintings as naturalism or idealism, because they do not show objects or creatures/humans. If the two paintings share the same subject is difficult to say.


[1] Saint Louis Art Museum emuseum, 04.20.2011,

[2] Saint Louis Art Museum emuseum, 04.20.2011,,%20orange&quicksearch=red,%20orange&newvalues=1&newstyle=single&newcurrentrecord=1

Excerpt out of 9 pages


Two Abstract Works of Art and Their Conveying of Contrasting Mood
Franz Kline’s Bethlehem and Mark Rothko’s Red, Orange, Orange on Red
Lindenwood University
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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1178 KB
abstract, works, their, conveying, contrasting, mood, franz, kline’s, bethlehem, mark, rothko’s, orange
Quote paper
Romina Müller (Author), 2011, Two Abstract Works of Art and Their Conveying of Contrasting Mood, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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