Marcus Rothkowitz was born in Dvinsk, Latvia, former Russia, in 1903. In the light of random Czarist pogroms in 1913, he leaves Russia and immigrates with his family to Portland, Oregon. Receives a grant and studies at the Yale University in New Haven from 1921-23 and then he abandons his study and moves to New York; in 1925 he studies with Max Weber at the Art Students League. In 1928 he exhibits for the first time at the Opportunity Galleries in New York. In the early thirties forms a friendship with Milton Avery and Adolph Gottlieb; in 1933 has his first oneman show at the Portland Art Museum.

In 1933 he also holds his first one-man show in New York, at the Contemporary Arts Gallery.
In 1935 he participates in the foundation of the group The Ten, along with other abstract expressionist artists. From 1936 to 1937 undertakes proposals for the WPA Federal Art Project during the economic crisis. Meets Barnett Newman in 1936.

In the early 1940's he works closely with Gottlieb, developing a pictorial style from mythological subjects, simple figures and a figurative language derived from primitive art. From 1945 he adopts techniques and images influenced by Surrealism. Peggy Guggenheim opens a one-man show at her Art of This Century Gallery in New York in 1945. From 1947 to 1949 he teaches at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco, where he meets Clyfford Still. Together with William Baziotes, David Hare and Robert Motherwell, Rothko is a founder of The Subjects of the Artist, a school that is active for a brief period in New York in 1948.

In the late 1940's and early 1950's, he develops his mature style where luminous rectangles seem to liberate themselves from the canvas and float on monochrome grounds.
In 1958 he undertakes his first mural commission, enormous paintings for the Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram Building in New York conceived in three series. In 1961 the Museum of Modern Art in New York realizes his only lifetime retrospective; in 1962 Rothko completes the murals for Harvard University, and in 1964 accepts the commission for a series of murals for a religious organization in Houston.

On February 25. 1970 he takes his own life in his studio in New York. The Houston chapel opens the following year.