He was born in London in 1901, the son of Sir William Rothenstein. The family was connected to the Bloomsbury Set. John Rothenstein studied at Worcester College, Oxford, and became friends with T. E. Lawrence. He shared rooms with the novelist William Gerhardie.
From 1938 to 1964 Rothenstein was director of the Tate Gallery in London. Rothenstein's directorship — the longest to date — was one of the most successful, despite there being few major bequests or expansions of the building. The Tate's annual purchase fund could not compete with those of US institutions, so few works of modern foreign art were added to the collection. However, Rothenstein wrote, "Picasso is a Proteus, the prodigiously gifted master of all styles and media". According to Richard Cork one of Rothenstein's errors was failing to purchase Henri Matisse's The Red Studio when it was offered to the Tate Gallery for a few hundred pounds in 1941. The art historian Douglas Cooper began an open campaign to have Rothenstein dismissed by the trustees; which led to an incident in which Rothenstein punched Cooper in the face. In any context Rothenstein's stewardship and preservation of the collection during the war years was a major accomplishment. He also documented the lives of all the major (and many still overlooked) British artists in his Modern English Painters, which has earned him the title of 'The Vasari of British Art' (like Vasari's pioneering Lives, it was revised and reprinted within the author's lifetime). The Tate also began to host temporary exhibitions during this period, organised by the Arts Council of Great Britain, including the major 1960 retrospective of Picasso. Most of the gallery's Stanley Spencers were acquired during his directorship but he was also contemporary-minded enough to acquire for the Tate, Kitaj's Isaac Babel Riding with Budyonny from the artist's first major show at Marlborough Fine Art in 1963. An annual lecture named in his honour now takes place at Tate Britain.
- Modern English Painters (3 vols., 1952–74)
- Autobiography (1965, 1966)
- Dido Davies, "William Gerhardie: A Biography"
- The London Gazette: . 10 June 1938. Retrieved 2008-10-08.
- John Rothenstein: The Moderns and their world (introduction) Phoenix House, London 1957, p.16.
- John Richardson: The Sorcerer's Apprentice: Picasso, Provence, and Douglas Cooper. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1999, ISBN 978-0-226-71245-1, p. 160
- Archive Journeys: Tate History. Sir John Rothenstein (1938 - 1964). Did you know?
- Rothenstein, John In: Dictionary of Art Historians. Retrieved August 21, 2010.
- John Richardson: The Sorcerer's Apprentice. p. 158-164
- Edward Chaney,"The Vasari of British Art: Sir John Rothenstein... and the Importance of Wyndham Lewis", Apollo, vol. 132, no. 345 (November, 1990), pp. 322-26
- Edward Chaney, 'Warburgian Artist: R.B. Kitaj, Edgar Wind, Ernst Gombrich, and the Warburg Institute', Obsesssions: R.B. Kitaj 1932-2007, eds. C. Kugelmann, E. Gillen and H. Gasner (Jewish Museum Berlin, 2012), p. 98
- The London Gazette: . 4 June 1948. Retrieved 2008-10-08.
- The London Gazette: . 28 December 1951. Retrieved 2008-10-08.
- The London Gazette: . 29 February 1952. Retrieved 2008-10-08.
- Archival material relating to John Rothenstein listed at the UK National Archives
- Another biography.
- William Roberts's pamphlet attacking Rothenstein's coverage of him in Modern English Painters
|Director of the Tate Gallery
C. P. Snow
|Rector of the University of St Andrews