Modern Art Painting by Arshile Gorkey Understanding Modern Art

Understanding Arshile Gorky Modern Art

Arshile Gorkey the Modern Art Artist

Arshile Gorky 1904-1948 was an Armenian, later naturalized American, artist.  He was born Vosdanig Adoian in the Armenian province of Van on the eastern border of Ottoman Turkey. When he arrived in America he wanted to re-invent himself and changed his name to Arshile Gorky. Many of his paintings are typical and powerful examples of Abstract Expressionism. We are going to focus on one of his paintings to get a little bit more understanding of Modern Art.  The Artist and His Mother is his deeply personal work that is not in the Abstract Expressionism style, rather it is a memorial to his mother and the suffering he and his family experienced during the genocide of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, 1914 – 1923. Gorky and his three sisters survived but his mother died of starvation.

Understanding What Are You Looking At

This painting is a self-portrait of himself as a boy with his mother from a photo.  He worked on it for some sixteen years or so. He holds a flower and his mother sits straight up in a chair with a scarf on her head, almost as if it is a halo. Soft rosy colors and the loose brushwork give the painting an ethereal quality as if something precious remembered from a previous life. It is exceptionally beautiful.  Despite the lengthy time he worked on the painting, it appears to be still unfinished, with the boy’s left shoe colored in unlike his right shoe. To me he is simply saying, “I have yet to finish this day.”  The trauma he experienced during these terrible events has never left him. And indeed, this is what many have said about this painting.  Trauma of losing his mother continues to shape him to well after it has occurred.  

Modern Art Painting by Arshile Gorkey Understanding Modern Art

What Does This Mean To Me?

This is one of the works I show on my walking tours of the East Building of the National Gallery of Art (when it is on display, which varies and cannot be guaranteed.) I find it almost unbearably poignant and deeply moving. In fact, it frequently brings tears to my eyes, despite having seen it many times. I cannot help but think “imagine if I had to watch my mother starve to death and was powerless to do anything to stop it”. It makes me feel I have led a-very -soft and privileged life and almost guilty for having done so. Really, I suppose it should make me count my blessings that I have never had to experience such a heart-rending experience. This painting also makes feel the weight of the unimaginable suffering of millions of people in the multiple catastrophes of the 20th century, WWI and WWII and the Holocaust.

Understanding A Bitter Ending

Sadly Gorky’s life was one of almost unmitigated tragedy. From 1946, he suffered one crisis after another-his studio burned down, destroying many of his works, his wife left him, taking their children, he underwent an operation for cancer and was injured in a car crash which paralyzed his painting arm and broke his neck. He hanged himself in 1948 at the age of 44.


Gorky is considered one of the greatest American artists, very influential in the development of Abstract Expressionism.

Other Works In the Museum

The other painting by Gorky sometimes displayed in the East building of the National Gallery of Art is typical of his Abstract Expressionist style – Painted at a farm in Virgina, he used turpentine to make the paint drip and “bleed” down the canvas.

One Year the Milweed Understanding Modern Art
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Stephen Mead

Stephen lived in London until six years ago, where he was invited to lead tours of exhibitions at the Victoria and Albert Museum and give talks for the National Arts Collection Fund (UK) and worked for many educational institutions in Britain. Since moving to the DC area, he has led many tours of the capital’s museums and monuments for tourists, student groups and adults. Stephen is also a professional storyteller and brings his skills in storytelling to the historical and artistic areas he covers in his tours, providing both an educational and enjoyable experience.
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