Born to Hungarian Jewish immigrants in New York, Rosemarie Beck graduated from Oberlin College with a bachelor's degree in art history in 1944. Beck later studied at Columbia University, the Art Students League in New York, the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, and in workshops with well-known artists Kurt Seligmann and Robert Motherwell. In 1945, she married author Robert Phelps, and they moved to Woodstock, N.Y. There she struck up lifelong friendships with Philip Guston and Bradley Walker Tomlin.
Early in her career, Beck was regarded as a member of the second generation of the New York School of abstract expressionists and her work was often exhibited at the annual shows of the Stable and Peridot galleries. Beginning in the late 1940s, she was mentored and promoted, first by Kurt Selgimann and then by Robert Motherwell in their respective ateliers. During this time, Beck identified as an abstract expressionist, but by the late 1950s, she had switched to the figurative focus that she would retain for the rest of her career. Beck described her transition this way: “The ore in my abstract veins had thinned. I thought I would nourish my abstract painting by painting subjects. Then I couldn’t go back. I must have been a secret realist all along because I had never stopped drawing from life.”
Beck became “one of the few painters of our time to treat grand themes in ambitious multi-figure compositions while satisfying a need both for abstract structure and for an execution that embodies energy without being gratuitous,” according to critic Martica Sawin.
Beck taught at Queens College of New York, Vassar College, Middlebury College, the Vermont Studio Center, Parsons School of Design, and the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture, where she was on the faculty until shortly before she died.