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Arshile Gorky's Childhood

by Gary Comenas

The exact date of Arshile Gorky's birth is unknown. During the Turkish crackdown on the Armenian population in the early 20th century all official records were destroyed. Arshile Gorky's childhood would become part of his self-made legend when he later moved to New York where he would entertain his artist friends with stories, songs and dances from his childhood without mentioning the horrors of his youth. Many of the artists he socialized with in New York were unaware that he had survived what is now referred to by many historians as the Armenian Genocide.

As an adult Gorky gave several different years (and places) for his birth - 1902, 1903 or 1904. (For instance, on his entry form for the Whitney Museum's 1937 Annual Exhibition of Contemporary Painting which ran from November 10 to December 12, 1937, Gorky listed his birth date as October 25, 1904 and his birthplace as Tiflis, Georgia, Russia.) According to his sister Vartoosh he was born April 22, 1904 although one of his biographers, Nouritza Matossian, noted that "The year 1902 is the most probable one, and corroborated by other boys of his age." (BA8)

Vosdanig Manoug Adoian - or Arshile Gorky as he would become known - was born in Khorkom, a small village near Lake Van in what is now western Armenia. His parents were Shushanig (mother) and Setrag Adoian (father). He was christened Manoug Adoian after his grandfather on his father's side who was also called Manoug. His mother named him Vosdanig after her home town. (BA8) Sometimes, she would refer to him as the "Black One" - the same term that the villagers used for the devil. (BA24)

Arshile Gorky:

"I remember myself when I was five years old. The year I first began to speak. Mother and I are going to church. We are there. For a while she left me standing before a painting. It was a painting of infernal regions. There were angels on the painting. White angels and black angels. All the black angels were going to Hades. I looked at myself. I am black, too, it means that there is no Heaven for me. A child's heart could not accept it. And I decided there and then to prove to the world that a black angel can be good, too, must be good and wants to give his inner goodness to the whole world, black and white world." (BAA)

The area of the Ottoman Empire that Gorky grew up in was about as far removed culturally from New York as you could get - no modern technology, no art museums, no bars and few educational opportunities. Entertainment was provided by nature and religious ceremonies.

Arshile Gorky [from a statement he provided to the Museum of Modern Art in 1942]:

"About 194 feet away from our house on the road to the spring, my father had a little garden with a few apple trees which had retired from giving fruit. There was a ground constantly giving shade where grew incalculable amounts of wild carrots, and porcupines had made their nests. There was a blue rock half buried in the black earth with a few patches here and there like fallen clouds. But where came all the shadows in constant battle like the lancers of Paolo Uccello's paintings? The garden was identified as the Garden of Wish Fulfillment and often I have seen my mother and other village women opening their bosoms and taking their soft and dependent breasts in their hands to rub them on the rock. Above all this stood an enormous tree all bleached by the sun, the rain, the cold, and deprived of leaves. This was the Holy Tree. I myself don't know why this tree is holy but I had witnessed many people, whoever did pass by, that would tear voluntarily a strip of their clothes and attach this to the tree. Thus through many years of the same act, like a veritable parade of banners under the pressure of wind all these personal inscriptions of signatures, very softly to my innocent ear used to give echo to the sh/sh/h/sh/h of silver leaves of the poplars." (SA)

Gorky's mother, Sushanig, was the daughter of a priest in the Apostolic Orthodox Church. His father, Setrag Adoian, was Sushanig's second husband. Her first husband was Tovmas Prudian who she had married in 1894 in the village of Shadagh. She had two daughters by Prudian - Sima and Akabi (Gorky's half-sisters). Two years after the marriage, the Turks murdered Prudian in Shagdagh. According to Gorky's sister, Vartoosh, "three Turkish guards dragged him [Prudian] into the house in Shadagh. They pulled her [Shushanig's] eyes open and forced her to watch as the men stabbed him. He had dared to stand as Mayor of Shadagh." (BA40)

Tragically, Sushanig and Tovmas' daughter, Sima, would also later be murdered by the Turks. She was killed in the early 1900s when the Turks invaded the American Orphanage in the town of Van. Sushanig had placed her daughter in the orphanage believing that she would be protected there during the periodic crackdowns on the Armenian population by the Turks. A British Member of Parliament, Harold Buxton, and his brother, the Reverend Noel Buxton, were in the region in 1908 and witnessed the brutal actions of the Turks during one of their attacks:

"The terrors began early in the morning. Some women fled panic-stricken down the street; shots were heard - this was the first warning. Then a crowd of fugitives gathered into the little courtyard, hoping for protection from the British Consulate near by... from one garden to another they hastened, expecting to be overtaken at any moment - while the awful butchery proceeded. They saw many cut down. A group of little boys fled down a lane in the same direction; in a few moments they might have reached safety, when round a corner Turkish soldiers appeared. The little boys were caught in a trap. In a minute or two, Turkish swords had done their work, and bloodstained, were seeking further prey. Meanwhile the fugitives were providentially spared, and reached the American Mission. Here were gathered some scores of fugitives. The compound and building were a very harbour of refuge. Yet even under American protection life was not secure... During the night, the crowded schoolrooms and outhouses were raided, and some of the best-favoured both of boys and girls, never to be seen again by their relatives." (BA20)

In July 1908 a new constitution was passed which seemed to protect the rights of the Armenians, just a few months after the massacre. The new constitution was written by an Armenian and promised representation for the different nationalities of the Ottoman empire, freedom of speech and press and an amnesty for political prisoners. Restrictions on passports were also removed and the cost of passports lowered. (BA22) Shusanig's second husband, Setrag, and his brother, Krikor, decided to immigrate to the United States, assuming that the family they left behind would be protected under the new constitution and could be sent for once Setrag and Krikor had established roots in the U.S. But the worse was yet to come - the beginning of World War I in June 1914 and the siege of Van in 1915. Manoug (Arshile Gorky) never forgave Setrag for deserting the family.

Gorky, his mother and his two sisters (Satenig and Vartoosh) moved to the Van province from Khorkum in September 1910. At first they lived in the walled city of Van where Akabi (Gorky's half sister from his father's side of the family) and her husband Mgrditch Amerian (who Akabi had married earlier in the year - on February 10th) also lived. Later, they moved to Aykesdan, a village outside the walled city where most Armenians lived. Manoug's mother sent the children to the American Mission School during the day. At the Mission the children learned English and were exposed to a more Western way of teaching. Occasionally, the Mission would also show films. (BA46)

In August 1911, more family members left for the U.S. This time it was Setrag's son-in-law, Akabi's husband Mgrditch and Manoug's half-brother, Hagop, who left in order to avoid conscription in the Ottoman army. Again, Gorky and his sisters Vartoosh and Satenig, and Gorky's half-sister Akabi (and Akabi's son Gurgen) were left behind. (BA50) When the siege of Van began in 1915, Gorky and his family joined 6,000 other refugees at the American Mission in the city. (BA68)

Vartoosh [Gorky's sister]:

"The war started, the schools were closed. Our section became a battle front. The men were fighting in the area and they moved us. Akabi came too, her little boy, Gurgen, and Mummy. We moved to the building of the American missionaries. It was a huge place. Gorky was with the men running about. They took ammunition to the soldiers, carried supplies. He was always with the boys. In the evening he came home. We lived and slept there." (BA68)

The fierce efforts of the Armenian freedom fighters were rewarded in May when the Turks retreated and a Russo-Armenian military regiment marched into Van to the welcoming cheers of the survivors of the siege. The joy was short-lived. In June the Russians retreated and town criers ran through the city telling everyone to evacuate. Under guard of Russian and Armenian soldiers, the family joined the many refugees taking the northern route to Yerevan which led into Russian Armenia - 150 miles away. Sometimes surviving only on grass and the water from melting ice, Manoug (Gorky) and his family eventually arrived in Yerevan. (BA79)


"Walking night and day for eight days, our shoes were all gone. We clambered over hills and fields. We slept at night a little bit but we had to wake very early to set off because the people who left after us were all killed on the field of Bergri. The Turks attacked them and killed them, almost 40 or 50,000 were killed there. Some went down to Persia but we took the route to Yerevan." (BA80)

In Yerevan the family lived at 39 Vagsaltzky Street. Akabi and Satenig worked in canning factories while Vartoosh looked after Gurgen. In September 1915, Russian and Armenian military units re-took Van. But whereas the Russians had earlier promised to hand the territory over to the Armenians they now planned to partition the occupied areas and re-populate them with Russian colonists. Gorky and his family stayed in Yerevan. (BA86)

In October of the following year (1916), Satenig and Akabi and her son Gurgen, left for the United States. Akabi's husband, Mgrditch Amerian, had returned from America to collect them. But Gorky's father Setrag never returned for his wife or his children. Eventually Gorky found work at the State Printing Press with his cousin, Azad, who he had run into at the orphanage at the American Mission. All newspapers, journals and books were printed at the State Printing Press and Manoug would sometimes take home the loose printed pages for binding in the evening. His sister Vartoosh later recalled, "We had a little frame and I sewed the pages together. Mother was ill. We made a little money that way. While we worked, we talked about everything." (BA90)

In May 1918, Turkish forces pushed back into Russian Armenia and were heading straight for Yerevan. But on May 24th they were defeated by Armenian defence forces and a truce was signed. On May 28th the First Republic of Armenia was declared but it was a fruitless victory - all Turkish Armenian provinces were lost and the population became increasingly desperate as resources grew scarce.

Azad (Gorky's cousin):

"Armenia turned, supposedly into an independent country. They broke off links with the Russians. In what is now called Freedom Square, they pulled up their Mausers, broke into shops, burned them, looted them, took money and ran. Armenian against Armenian. There in the square was a small cinema.They killed a man and just took his money. It wasn't politics, just robbery." (BA94)

During the summer of 1918, Gorky, his mother Shusanig and his sister Vartoosh decided to leave the chaos of Yerevan and find refuge in the city of Tiflis. The Bolsheviks were fighting in Baku and they feared they were on their way to Yerevan. They set off carrying their possessions on their backs. They traveled slowly, not getting very far because their mother was ill. They rested in the village of Shahab, seven miles from the edge of Yerevan. Gorky decided that because his mother was too ill to travel, they should return to the city they were escaping from. By the time they got there other people had taken over their house and they were forced to find an empty house in the district. They tried to get their mother into the local charity hospital but she was refused. They were told that they had relatives in America and were receiving money from them. Although it was true that Setrag had sent money, it had never got through the bureaucratic chaos and Gorky and his family were unaware that any had been sent. (BA95)

Conditions grew worse. The winter of 1918-19 became known as the "Year of the Famine." The town of Yerevan housed 75,000 refugees. The countryside had been stripped of crops and livestock by the Turkish army. Turkey had also imposed a blockade on Armenia meaning no supplies could come through on the railway lines. By the end of Spring 1919, 200,000 people had died (one fifth of the total population of the republic). (BA97) On March 17, 1919, American missionaries sent a message to the U.S.A. begging for urgent help: "No bread anywhere. Government has not a pound. Forty-five thousand in Yerevan without bread. Orphanages and troops all through Yerevan in terrible condition. Another week will score ten thousand lives lost. For heaven's sake hurry!." (BA98)

Several days after that message was sent, on March 20, 1919, Gorky's mother, Shusanig, died while dictating to Gorky a letter to her husband in America.


"Mummy was speaking. She was saying, 'Write that I can never leave Armenia. That I will never come to America. They've abandoned us completely.' Then suddenly we saw that mother had died... I don't even know if there was a proper burial. I don't know which cemetery she is buried in. They just took her away." (BA98)

Three days after their mother's death the first supplies finally arrived from the American Relief Administration. Money also arrived from America - $300 from Gorky's father in the U.S. But because the money was marked for Sushanig, and Sushanig was dead, the officials refused to hand the money over to Gorky and his sister. (BA100)

A friend from Van, Kertzo Dickran, consoled Gorky, telling him, "If we can only get to Constantinople, you'll receive the money there." (BA101) Gorky and Vartoosh headed for Constantinople. They left Yerevan during the summer of 1919. (BA103) After a short stay in Tiflis they continued on to Constantinople where they initially lived with other refugees in a camp. Dickran filled out forms for them in an effort to contact their father. A female doctor, Vergine Kelekian, offered to let Vartoosh and Gorky stay with her in the wealthy district of Bebek. Vartoosh took her up on the offer. Initially Gorky stayed in the camp but later joined his sister at Vergine's home. (BA107) Months passed with no news from their father. Through the efforts of Kelekian's son they finally got their travel papers - the Turks were making it easy for Armenians to leave the country in order to confiscate their properties. (BA109)

After a six month stay in Constantinople, Gorky and his sister, Vartoosh, were finally ready to leave. They departed for America by ship soon after the Armenian Christmas on January 6.


"The waves were beautiful. Gorky was happy to be on the sea. He sang songs of Van. He liked to sit at the side of the ship, close to the waves. He started to write poetry and he was drawing pictures. He drew boats, the sky, the clouds, he drew all the way to America." (BA114)

Gorky was largely self-taught as an artist. He seemed to know how to draw naturally, without any training. None of his extended family were artists and no art training was offered during the primitive education he received as a child. Yet his older half-sister, Akabi, later recalled that he drew all the time as a child. (BA13) He would not have any formal training in art until he enrolled in the School of Fine Art and Design in Boston in 1923. Despite any previous training he managed to advance from student to teacher In about two years. He began teaching at the Boston school's sister campus in New York, the New School for Design, in 1925 where Mark Rothko was one of his students.

Gary Comenas


to: March 1920: Arshile Gorky arrives in the U.S.

back to: April 1915: The Battle of Van (and the Armenian Genocide) begins

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