Gorky was born Vosdanig Adoian in around 1902, in the small town of Khorkom, near Lake Van, in an Armenian province that is part of modern-day Turkey. His father, Setrag Adoian, was a trader and occasional carpenter, while his mother, Shushan der Marderosian, was a descendent of Armenian priests. While Gorky spoke his first words later than most children, he took to carving and drawing early. “He used to draw in his sleep,” Akabi, one of Gorky’s half-sisters, would later recount
. “You could see his hand moving.”
During his childhood, the Armenian population became increasingly oppressed by the Ottoman Turks, prompting Gorky’s family to flee, piecemeal, to America. After Gorky’s mother died of starvation, in 1919, he and his sister Vartoosh began their long trek to America, through refugee camps in Constantinople and Athens, eventually landing at Ellis Island on February 26, 1920, when Gorky was about 18. Soon after, he began to reinvent himself as an artist—and embed his experience of displacement into his work.
After a brief stint in engineering school, he settled at Boston’s New School of Design and Illustration in 1923 and began frequenting museums and galleries, where he pored over the work of Modern masters like Cézanne, Picasso,
. Around this time, the budding painter assumed the name Arshile Gorky, borrowing the surname of Russian writer Maxim Gorky (which was itself a pseudonym), in an attempt, as scholars have suggested, to align himself with the creative canon.
After he moved to New York City, in 1924, Gorky supported himself with teaching jobs (first, at what is now known as the Parsons School of Design, where
was his student). Throughout the late 1920s, he moved around Manhattan between studios and artist haunts, befriending artists like
and intellectuals like Breton, simultaneously situating himself as a prominent figure in the New York creative community and as a guiding light for emerging painters like