Beginning in about 1948, Robert Motherwell made works that would evolve into an ongoing series of over one hundred painted variations on a theme that he called Elegies to the Spanish Republic. Initially inspired by the Spanish Civil War as well as by the poetry of Harold Rosenberg and Federico García Lorca, the real subject of Motherwell's Elegies is not any particular literary source or political event but rather a general meditation on life and death. Although specific paintings may express an individual spirit, or "tone voice," they remain a family group, related to one another by subject and by similarities in composition and format. In all of these paintings, the horizontal white canvas is rhythmically divided by two or three freely drawn vertical bars and punctuated at various intervals by ovoid forms, creating a structure seemingly heraldic in nature. The paintings are almost always composed entirely of black and white—the colors of mourning and radiance, of death and life. Motherwell has remarked on the entanglement of these forces in these works, as a metaphor for his understanding of the experience of living.
Motherwell's Elegies of the 1960s reflect his Abstract Expressionist affiliations in the gestural, painterly treatment of form, the rapid execution, and the integration of accidental effects, such as spattered paint. "Elegy to the Spanish Republic, 70" was executed on the floor rather than on an easel, in the manner of Jackson Pollock's earlier "poured" or "drip" paintings.