Reverse, on canvas: Arshele Gorky
The painting is informed by two paintings by Pablo Picasso (1881–1973)—Femme assise, 1926–27 (Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto), and Seated Woman, 1927 (Museum of Modern Art, New York)—both of which were illustrated, a page apart, in Cahiers d'Art 2, no. 6 (Paris, 1927), a copy of which was in Gorky's library.1 During Gorky's lifetime, the former painting was shown in the exhibition Since Cézanne at the Valentine Gallery in New York (December 28, 1931–January 16, 1932). While, the latter was exhibited in New York at the Museum of Modern Art in Painting in Paris (1930) and the seminal presentation Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism (December 9, 1936–January 17, 1937), as well as at the Demotte Galleries in a show of Picasso's paintings (December 1931).
The painting's overall composition is closely referenced in three known drawings (see related work).
Gorky's given name was Vosdanig “Manoug” Adoian but he rejected this in favor of a name that sounded less Armenian, as was typical of many Armenian immigrants at the time. He settled on Arshile Gorky around 1932 after having experimented with several spelling variations, including “Archele,” “Archel,” and “Gorki,” or, as it is here, “Arshele." He admired Maxim Gorky (b. Alexei Maximovich Peshkov; 1868–1936), a feeling shared by many of his countrymen because of the Russian-born writer’s support for the plight of the Armenian population in the Ottoman Empire.2 Many falsely believed there to be a relation between the two men—a misunderstanding that Gorky often did not correct. One of the earliest known instances where this affiliation appears in print is a September 1926 announcement of Gorky's faculty appointment to the Grand Central School of Art in New York, in which the reporter identifies him as a cousin of the writer's.3 According to Helen Sandow (1906–2000), a close friend, when she once asked Gorky if the putative cousinship were true, he retorted, "'of course not. But I'm sick and tired of their asking me if I was, so I just say Yes.'"4 Although Gorky wasn't proficient in the language, his pseudonym—across its various spellings—is most often translated from Russian, with "Gorky" and its variants meaning "bitter." The origins of his first name, “Arshile,” are less clear. Among the theories are a reference to Archie Gunn–an American name inspired by Western movies–or a reference to “Achilles” from Greek mythology. It is also worth noting that “Arshile” shares the familiar prefix “Ar” used in many traditional Armenian names.
1. "Dernières œuvres de Picasso," Cahiers d'Art 2, no. 6 (1927): 197, 198.
2. After World War I, Maxim Gorky worked for the Armenian Relief Organization and in 1916 he coedited an anthology of Armenian poetry translated into Russian.
3. "Fetish of Antique Stifles Art Here, Says Gorky Kin," New York Evening Post (September 15, 1926): 17.
4. "Helen Sandow: Gorky in the Twenties and Thirties," November 22, 1993, in Spender, ed., The Plow and the Song, 40; Helen Sandow, interview with Matthew Spender, November 22, 1993, transcript, Matthew Spender Papers, AGF Archives.