Arshile Gorky

The Artist and His Mother
1926–c. 1936

Not on view

Date
1926–c. 1936

Classification
Paintings

Medium
Oil on canvas

Dimensions
Overall: 60 × 50 1/4in. (152.4 × 127.6 cm)

Accession number
50.17

Credit line
Gift of Julien Levy for Maro and Natasha Gorky in memory of their father

Rights and reproductions
© The Arshile Gorky Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

This portrait of Arshile Gorky and his mother is based on a photograph taken in his native Armenia in 1912, when the artist was just a child. Three years later, during the Ottoman Turk campaign of genocide against the Armenians, Gorky, his mother, and his younger sister all survived a death march, but his mother never recovered her health. She died in 1919 from starvation. The following year, the fifteen-year-old Gorky immigrated to the United States with his sister. In 1926, he began work on this and another version now in the National Gallery of Art. Gorky, however, did not simply copy the photograph, but painted a meditation on remembrance: the white apron worn by Gorky’s mother makes her appear statue-like, and other areas of the painting seem, like memory itself, unfinished and mutable. The figures’ searching gazes lend the composition psychological intensity, eliciting sympathy yet avoiding outright pathos or sentimentality.


Audio

  • Where We Are

    Arshile Gorky, The Artist and His Mother, 1926-c.1936

    Arshile Gorky, The Artist and His Mother, 1926-c.1936

    0:00

    Narrator: This painting of artist Arshile Gorky and his mother is based on a photograph from 1912. A few years after the photo was taken, Gorky and his family were among more than a million ethnic Armenians who were victims of the Armenian genocide. The artist and his sister survived the ordeal. Geoffrey Hartman is Professor of Comparative Literature at Yale University. 

    Geoffrey Hartman: We know that this painting was done when the mother was dead. She died close to him, he says in his arms of starvation when he was, then he would have been, what, sixteen years old. 

    It's clear in the picture that there may have been some, a painting of actual hands, at least the right hand. But there does seem to be a violence in erasing the two hands. So I am struck by the muteness here. If you wanted to bring that muteness back to the actual features of the painting, you would probably mention the very tightly closed mouths. 

    Of course, we know that trauma often produces muteness. Sometimes psychologists call it elective silence, often especially in the young child. There's a refusal to speak or a difficulty of speaking. That is when you begin to stutter, for instance. What one could very metaphorically say there is some stuttering there, around the hands. You know, the painting begins to stutter, shake and stutter around the hands.

  • Where We Are, Spanish

    Arshile Gorky, The Artist and His Mother, c. 1926-36

    Arshile Gorky, The Artist and His Mother, c. 1926-36

    0:00

    Narrator: Esta pintura del artista Arshile Gorky y su madre se basa en una fotografía de 1912. Pocos años después de que se tomara la fotografía, Gorky y su familia formaron parte del más de un millón armenios que fueron víctimas del genocidio armenio. El artista y su hermana sobrevivieron a la tragedia. Geoffrey Hartman es profesor de Literatura Comparada en la Universidad Yale.

    Geoffrey Hartman: Sabemos que esta pintura fue realizada cuando la madre ya había muerto. Murió de hambre, muy cerca del pintor, dice él, en sus brazos; cuando el artista tenía alrededor de dieciséis años. 

    En la pintura parece estar claro que el artista había pintado unas manos, al menos la mano derecha. Sin embargo, todo parece indicar que borró ambas manos con un gesto violento. Me impresiona el mutismo en la obra. Si uno quisiera detectar el mutismo en los rasgos de la pintura, quizás mencionaría los labios apretados con fuerza. 

    Sabemos que el trauma a menudo produce mudez. A veces los psicólogos lo llaman silencio selectivo, sobre todo en los niños pequeños. Hay una especie de negativa a hablar o una dificultad para hablar. Es entonces cuando, por ejemplo, se empieza a tartamudear. De manera muy metafórica, se podría decir que hay una cierta tartamudez en la obra, alrededor de las manos. La pintura pareciera comenzar a tartamudear, a temblar alrededor de las manos.

  • America Is Hard to See

    Arshile Gorky, The Artist and His Mother, c. 1926–36

    Arshile Gorky, The Artist and His Mother, c. 1926–36

    0:00

    Narrator: This painting of artist Arshile Gorky and his mother is based on a photograph from 1912. A few years after the photo was taken, Gorky and his family were among more than a million ethnic Armenians who were victims of the Armenian genocide. The artist and his sister survived the ordeal. Geoffrey Hartman is Professor of Comparative Literature at Yale University.

    Geoffrey Hartman: We know that this painting was done when the mother was dead. She died close to him, he says in his arms of starvation when he was, then he would have been, what, sixteen years old.

    It's clear in the picture that there may have been some, a painting of actual hands, at least the right hand. But there does seem to be a violence in erasing the two hands. So I am struck by the muteness here. If you wanted to bring that muteness back to the actual features of the painting, you would probably mention the very tightly closed mouths.

    Of course, we know that trauma often produces muteness. Sometimes psychologists call it elective silence. . . often especially in the young child. There's a refusal to speak or a difficulty of speaking. That is when you begin to stutter, for instance. What one could very metaphorically say there is some stuttering there, around the hands. You know, the painting begins to stutter, shake and stutter around the hands. 



Arshile Gorky
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