Gorky’s The Artist and His Mother

I don’t like that word, “finish.” When something is finished, that means it’s dead, doesn’t it? I believe in everlastingness. I never finish a painting—I just stop working on it for a while.

–Arshile Gorky, 1948

In March 1919, 14-year-old Vosdanig Manoog Adoian watched his mother starve to death, one of countless victims of the Ottoman Turkish effort to displace or exterminate the empire’s Armenian population. Years later, after migrating to the United States and adopting the name Arshile Gorky, the boy-turned-artist came across a photograph of himself and his mother taken in 1912, when he was eight. The photograph become the touchstone for The Artist and His Mother, which would preoccupy Gorky on and off from 1926 until about 1942. Both an exploration of modern painting and an emotional evocation of personal and national tragedy, it is one of the most powerful portraits of the 20th century.

Like the black-and-white studio photograph on which it was based, the portrait depicts a young Gorky standing next to his seated mother. He wears a long formal coat with a collar and stiffly holds a spray of small flowers in his right hand. She wears a pinafore over a blouse or sweater, a scarf wraps her head, and her hands rest on her thighs. The palette is dominated by warm rose and terracotta. The loose, dry brushwork and the structuring of the composition through broad areas of color rather than lines dematerialize the figures and lend the painting an ethereal quality. (From the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC)

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