About This Artwork

Arshile Gorky
American, born Armenia, 1904-1948

The Artist's Mother, 1926 or 1936

Charcoal on ivory laid paper
630 x 485 mm
Signed recto, lower right: "A Gorky / 1926 [or 1936]"

The Worcester Sketch Fund, 1965.510

© 2014 The Arshile Gorky Foundation / The Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

“The eyes of the Armenian speak before the lips move and long after they cease to,” Arshile Gorky once wrote. These words aptly describe this heroic portrait of the artist’s mother, Shushan der Marderosian. Although of noble lineage, Shushan and her family were peasants who faced poverty and Turkish persecution and massacre; in 1919 she died from starvation. The following year, Gorky and one of his sisters immigrated to the United States. This tender, haunting image is based on a photograph of the artist with his mother taken in 1912. Clad in simple country clothes, Shushan is a gaunt, distant figure with remarkable and piercing eyes. Gorky depicted his mother with careful, classical simplicity, transforming her dark beauty into the perfect features of an Eastern European church icon. The same photograph served as the inspiration for two canvases entitled The Artist and His Mother (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; and National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), as well as numerous notebook sketches and other drawings, of which this is the most finished. From this early representational mode, Gorky’s art underwent a complex evolution that led, in the 1940s, to his dynamic, biomorphic abstractions. Tragically, the artist did not escape hardship. After a series of personal disasters in the 1940s, Gorky took his own life.

— Entry, Essential Guide, 2013, p. 324.


Arshile Gorky, an Armenian immigrant to the United States, developed an abstract painting style influenced by Surrealism, but, like many 20th-century artists, he first revealed his skills in representational work. The Artist's Mother is a large charcoal drawing inspired by a photograph of Gorky as a young boy with his mother. Drawing with a careful, classic simplicity, he transformed the woman's dark beauty into the perfect features of an Eastern Orthodox icon. “The eyes of the Armenian speak before the lips move and long after they cease to,” Arshile Gorky once wrote. Although of noble lineage, Gorky's mother, Lady Shushanik and her family were peasants exposed to severe hardship, including poverty and Turkish persecution and massacre. In 1919, Lady Shushanik died from starvation; in the following year Gorky and a sister emigrated to the United States.

Exhibition, Publication and Ownership Histories

Exhibition History

Chicago, Arts Club, "Drawings 1916/1966," February 28-March 11, 1966, n.p., cat. 35 (ill.).

Philadelphia, Pa., Peale Galleries of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, "Paintings and Drawings by Arshile Gorky," November 9-December 10, 1967, cat. 9.

New York, M. Knoedler and Company, "Gorky: Drawings," November 25-December 27, 1969, pp. 30 and 57, cat. 47 (ill.).

College Park, Md., University of Maryland Art Department and Gallery, "The Drawings of Arshile Gorky," 1969, p. 8, cat. 5 (ill.).

Urbana-Champaign, Ill., Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, "Drawings from the Collections of The Art Institute of Chicago," April 23–May 14, 1972, n.p..

Palm Beach, Fla., Society of the Four Arts, "Drawings from The Art Institute of Chicago," January 5–27, 1974, n.p., cat. 24 (ill.).

Milwaukee, Wis., University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee,"Arshile Gorky: Drawings and Paintings," April 29-May 10, 1974.

Cambridge, Mass., Massachusetts Institute of Technology, "Drawings by Abstract Expressionist Painters," February 21-March 26, 1975.

New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, "Twentieth-Century American Drawing: Three Avant-Garde Generations," December 19, 1975-August 29, 1976, pp. 62-63, cat. 78 (ill.).

New York, Columbia University, "Modern Portraits: The Self & Others," pp. 58-59 and 184, cat. 41 (ill.); traveled only to Wildenstein and Company, New York, October 20–November 28, 1976.

Washington D.C., National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, "American Portrait Drawings," May 1-July 21, 1980, p. 130, cat. by Marvin Sadik and Harold Francis Pfiste.

Paris, Centre Georges Pompido, "Les Réalismes, 1919-1939," December 17, 1980-April 20, 1981, p. 263 (ill.); traveled to the Staatliche Kunsthalle Berlin, May 10-June 30, 1981.

New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, "Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective," April 24-July 26, 1981, n.p., cat. 72 (ill.), cat. by Diane Waldman.

The Art Institute of Chicago, "Great Drawings from The Art Institute of Chicago: The Harold Joachim Years 1958-1983," July 24-September 30, 1985, pp. 212-213, cat. 100 (ill.), cat. by Martha Tedeschi; traveled to The St. Louis Art Museum, March 10–May 16, 1986.

Huntington, N.Y., Heckscher Museum, "The Artist's Mother: Portraits and Homage," 1988, pp. 35 and 58, cat. 7 (ill.); traveled only to the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C., March 26-June 5, 1988.

New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, "Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective of Drawings," November 20, 2003-February 15, 2004, pp. 22-23 and 242, pl. 4, cat. by Janie C. Lee and Melvin P. Lader; traveled to the Menil Collection, Houston, Tex, March 5-May 12, 2004.

Publication History

Ethel K. Schwabacher, Arshile Gorky (New York, 1957), p. 35 (ill.).

Julien Levy, Arshile Gorky (New York, 1966), n.p., pl. 22.

John Maxon, The Art Institute of Chicago (London, 1970), p. 171 (ill.).

K. Mooradian, Ararat 12:4 (Fall 1971) (ill.).

John Wilmerding (editor), The Genius of American Painting (New York, 1973), p. 262 (ill.).

Arshile Gorky: Oeuvres sur papier, 1929-1947, exh. cat. (Lausanne, 1990), p. 27, fig. 11.

James N. Wood and Sally Ruth May, The Art Institute of Chicago: The Essential Guide (Chicago, 1993), p. 217 (ill.).

Nouritza Matossian, Black Angel: A Life of Arshile Gorky (London, 1999), pp. 274-275, fig. 1.

Gagosian Gallery, Arshile Gorky: Portraits, exh. cat. (New York, 2002), pp. 15 and 30-33 (ill.).

Hayden Herrara, Arshile Gorky: His Life and Work (New York, 2003).

The Essential Guide (Chicago, 2009), p. 310 (ill.).

Ownership History

Julien Levy, New York, 1946. Sold by the Staempfli Gallery, New York, to the Art Institute, 1965.




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