John Rothenstein 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 novelist William Gerhardie.
After serving as Director of Leeds City Art Gallery, from 1938–64 Rothenstein was Director of the Tate Gallery in London. Rothenstein's directorship — the longest to date — was one of the most successful. 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, he wrote, "Picasso is a Proteus, the prodigiously gifted master of all styles and media".
Rothenstein 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 began hosting temporary exhibitions during this period, organised by the Arts Council of Great Britain, including the major 1960 retrospective of Picasso. Rothenstein acquired such contemporary works as R.B. 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.
- The Life and Death of Conder (1938) J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd London
- Modern English Painters (3 vols., 1952–74)
- Autobiography: Summer's Lease, 1901-1938 (1965); Bright Day, Hideous Night, 1939-1965 (1966)
- The Artists of the 1890's (1928) George Routledge & Sons Ltd London
- Dido Davies, "William Gerhardie: A Biography"
- "No. 34519". The London Gazette. 10 June 1938. p. 3725.
- Rothenstein, John, The Moderns and their World (introduction), Phoenix House, London 1957, p. 16[ISBN missing]
- John Richardson, The Sorcerer's Apprentice: Picasso, Provence, and Douglas Cooper. University of Chicago Press, 1999; ISBN 978-0-226-71245-1, pp. 158-64.
- Sir John Rothenstein profile Archived 29 August 2008 at the Wayback Machine., tate.org.uk; accessed 30 July 2014.
- John Rothenstein profile, Dictionary of Art Historians; retrieved 21 August 2010.
- 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", Obsessions: R.B. Kitaj 1932-2007, eds. C. Kugelmann, E. Gillen and H. Gasner (Jewish Museum Berlin, 2012), p. 98
- Rothenstein profile Archived 29 August 2008 at the Wayback Machine., tate.org.uk; accessed 28 July 2014.
- "No. 38311". The London Gazette (Supplement). 4 June 1948. pp. 3373–3374.
- "No. 39421". The London Gazette (Supplement). 28 December 1951. p. 2.
- "No. 39480". The London Gazette. 29 February 1952. p. 1192.
- "Upholding political ends of a free society". The Glasgow Herald. 20 February 1965. Retrieved 20 June 2017.
- "Archival material relating to John Rothenstein". UK National Archives.
- William Roberts's pamphlet attacking Rothenstein's coverage of him in Modern English Painters; accessed 28 July 2014.
| Director of the Tate Gallery
C. P. Snow
| Rector of the University of St Andrews
Learie Nicholas Constantine, Baron Constantine, Kt.