Michael Rothenstein, born in Hampstead in 1908, was the younger son of the artist, Sir William Rothenstein. He attended Chelsea Polytechnic in 1923, then moved to the Central School of Arts and Crafts, from 1924-7, where he was taught by Archibald Standish Hartrick and Bernard Meninsky.
Rothenstein suffered from depression and nerves throughout his life, but felt it acutely in the 1920s and 30s, which limited his output. However, he continued to paint occasionally, mainly neo-Romantic landscapes. In 1940, he was commissioned by the Recording Britain project to paint at-risk areas in Sussex. This project was organised by the Pilgrim Trust, orchestrated by Kenneth Clark, and employed artists to record Britain on the cusp of change. The English countryside was close to Rothenstein’s heart, and he spent much of his life there, moving to Great Bardfield in the 1940s: home of Edward Bawden, John Aldridge, and Kenneth Rowntree. They were later joined by more luminaries—Audrey Cruddas, Marianne Straub, Stanley Clifford-Smith, and George Chapman.
In 1930, Rothenstein had a one-man show at the Warren Gallery, then, in 1942, another at the Redfern Gallery, as well as many others that followed.
After the war, in 1946, Rothenstein stopped painting watercolours and began creating prints, working with various techniques, as well as mixed media. This work often featured repeated images that almost became motifs—birds, boats, farm machinery, weather vanes, and other everyday objects. He started to arrange the Great Bardfield Artists exhibitions in the 1950s, publicising them through contacts such as his brother, John, the then head of Tate. Rothenstein also founded a workshop in Great Bardfield in 1954.
Rothenstein was an innovative figure in printmaking during the 1950s and ‘60s, believing that one could print from any surface. He won first prize in the Giles Bequest Competition for colour lino and woodcuts in 1954 and ’56. In the 1960s, his work became less figurative, more abstract, using repeated symbols in a similar way to S.W. Hayter, whom he worked with at Atelier 17 in 1957. Rothenstein also wrote on the subject of printmaking, publishing Linocuts and Woodcuts in 1962, Frontiers of Printmaking in 1966, and Relief Printing in 1970.
Rothenstein made murals for and decorated schools at Wribbenhall, Eltham, and Bewdley. He later turned to teaching himself, instructing students in print-making at Camberwell School of Art. He was made an Art Fellow at Sheffield University in 1962, and lectured in the US. In 1977, Rothenstein was made an Associate of the Royal Academy, becoming a full Academician in 1989. His prints were wild, almost chaotic, bright colours fighting against bizarre shapes and expressive animals, a contrast to the quiet, greying elegance of his early watercolour landscapes.