Friday, November 7, 2014

The Gorky Connection:My great uncle Marvin and Arshile Gorky in Boston

In the mid-Nineties Armenian art historian Levon Chooksazian was asked by a German publishing house to write short biographies of Armenian artists of the 20th century for inclusion in a world lexicon of artists. Because I am an artist of Armenian descent, he contacted me to learn about my history and those of other Armenian/American artists whom I knew. One artist that he had already heard about was my great uncle Marvin Julian.  Since he was someone, whose story was part of family lore, I was able to fill in lots of details about his life. Levon always enjoyed coming to Boston from Armenia to lecture, and, moreover, as a lover of the Armenian language, to hear the dialect of Western Armenian still spoken by the nonagenarians, who came from Western Anatolia around the beginning of the last century. With the passing of that generation and the extirpation of their ancestors in the towns of central Turkey such as Harput, this dialect is now disappearing. Such is the lot of the Armenians. Their moments of political coherence are short lived. Levon always goes about his work with a sense of urgency to document the actors and players in Armenian culture, while there is still an Armenia in which Armenian culture can thrive.

If it were not for the persecution of Armenians in Turkey, Marvin Julian, born Chooljian,(alternate spellings from his early years in America are Chooljean and Chovilijean) would not have come to this country. The Ottoman overlord's pogroms on the Armenian minority, periodically, reminded them of their inferior social position and  confiscated their money in a rude sort of taxation. My grandmother, Marvin’s sister, said that during these assaults the young boys were rolled up in oriental rugs to hide them from the soldiers.  When the dust settled on one of these sporadic attacks, my grandmother, just a little girl, wandering the streets with her mother inquired  why there were so many people sleeping in the street.

It is out of and from this turmoil that Marvin and his extended family came to Boston. I have always marveled to what degree, originating from the rural interior of Anatolia, he was able to sort out the cultural reality of New England in short order, so as to eventually establish himself as an artist of no mean repute in the city of Boston.    
Photo taken in Turkey with Marvin seated at the lower left

Piecing together his early years leaves much that is out of focus. He enlisted in the American Army before World War 1, but never went to war, remaining at Fort Devens outside of Boston. He survived the notorious influenza epidemic in 1918, that killed more American soldiers than died on the Front. My father remembers being so proud to see him in uniform in Boston, when the American Army replaced the police, who went on strike in 1919. It was probably prior to his service in the Army that he met John Singer Sargent, who worked on the Boston Public Library murals up until 1919. He would run errands for him such as buying a newspaper and would receive art instruction in exchange. The story was already part of his resume in the 1930’s article on him in a Boston newspaper. By the early Twenties he moved to Paris to study at the Academie Julian, a haven for American artists, which functioned as an avant-garde alternative to the L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts. It trained not only the French Modernist Matisse but Americans of note such as Sargent, Henri and Prendergast. He made money as a gravedigger in the American military cemeteries of the Great War, and frequented Sunday salons organized by wealthy Boston matrons living  in Paris. His father who worked like many Armenians in the Hood Rubber Plant in Watertown, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston, helped him out financially, until some monetary setbacks made it impossible to continue his support.Marvin was forced to return to Boston. The story goes that in despair he threw all his art materials into the Seine.
His life in Paris was brought into focus several years ago, when I went on a tour with my wife on the Left Bank of Paris to locate the school, where she had studied before going to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. When we found the school and entered the courtyard I noticed inscribed above a door: "Academie Julian". Was this once the location of this famous school that my great uncle took his name from?  The school was on break, so that our presence in the school was noticed by  the school’s director. We addressed our questions to him and learned that indeed this had been the location of the famous Academy, before it became in the 1950's the preparatory school for the Beaux-Arts that my wife attended. When I told him of my uncle, he said that there would be a record of his attendance and that in fact the vice-director of the school was writing a book about the history of the Academy. The vice-director was in his office and spent sometime with us looking up Marvin’s name. Indeed, his name was on the list of students and moreover, he had won an award for his painting.

Back in Boston with Academy Julian credentials under his belt, he became over a period of time a teacher in several art schools.We are in possession of a catalogue from The Exeter School of Art that lists him as an instructor. Several anecdotes that he related to me of his early years in Boston concerned his relationship with Arshile Gorky, who lived in Watertown with his sister for several years on Dexter Ave, where Marvin’s parents lived. Marvin, who was born in 1894, was ten years older than Arshile. Marvin said that Gorky studied art under him at The New School of Design and Illustration, which the Gorky Foundation lists as the school he attended and eventually taught at. In a discussion with the director of the Gorky Foundation I was told that they are going to research more thoroughly his life in Boston and hopefully turn up class lists that would confirm his relation to Marvin. Marvin described Gorky as a larger than life character, who would dazzle his fellow classmates with his ability to draw perfect circles free hand. At that time, Arshile painted in a tonal style similar to what was popular in Boston and a style that Marvin never strayed from. Gorky moved on  to New York and began his transformation into a Modernist, absorbing Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso and Miro. My uncle attended Gorky’s first opening in New York City. He recalls being snubbed by Gorky at the opening, who Marvin wrongly thought was embarrassed to show his old teacher what must have appeared to Marvin, the student of Sargent, as crudely wrought images. I have always contended that Gorky was embarrassed by his former teacher, who appeared to him as a representative of the old guard. In the end neither interpretation is accurate. The answer to this interaction between Marvin and Gorky, only became clear to me upon seeing Cosima Spender’s documentary on her grandfather: ”Without Gorky”. It depicts in the words of his wife, still alive, and his two daughters, the oppressive shadow that this inspired genius cast on their lives. It was not at all flattering of the great Armenian Painter. One aspect of Gorky’s life was spelled out emphatically in the film: he was very intent on maintaining the myth of  being the son of Maxim Gorky. So much so, that his wife only learned of his Armenian heritage toward the end of their life together from a grocer in Sherman Ct.. Obviously, Marvin knew Gorky was Armenian and his presence at the opening, risked blowing Gorky’s carefully constructed cover as the son of Maxim Gorky. Hence the snub.

Marvin to  Gorky's left
from Herrera's book
(referred to as Felix Choolijian
in Mooradians' book)

Family photo  of Marvin from 1925
(notice similar suit to what is
worn by Felix Chookjian)

Gorky's resume  at the Grand Central Art School that I read on the Gorky Foundation website says that he studied at the Academie Julian under Jean-Paul Lauren. The Gorky Foundation admits that this is totally fabricated by Gorky to plump up his resume and in my opinion is taken from his teacher Marvin at the New School of Design and Illustration. According to Gerard Vallin, who is writing a history of the school,  Lauren was a teacher at the Academy Julian when Marvin was there.

There is a good deal of circumstantial evidence to support the relationship of Gorky and Julian. The most intriguing is a photo that is an iconic part of the Gorky memorabilia, which appears in several biographies of Gorky. It portrays the young Gorky in 1925 at The New School of Design and Illustration in Boston, looking princely with a fur coat seated next to two women (one identified as an instructor Ethel Cooke) on his right and an artist to his left  named  Felix Chooligian in one biography(Mooradian) and Felix Chookjian in another(Herrera).  A recent search by my sister on has uncovered a passport request from Marvin Chooljian to study in France with a letter of support from the New School of Illustration and Design's director Douglas Connah, which describes him as a student of said school. The date is 1920. He came back from Paris in 1922 and presumably started teaching there, where, as Marvin claimed, he had Gorky as a student. There is also a photo of Marvin from 1925 that was in the possession of Marvin’s sister (my grandmother) wearing what appears to be the same suit worn by Felix in the photo of Gorky. I have shown numerous people the two photos side by side and no one has doubted that Felix is Marvin. The difference in spelling of the last name does in no way discount my theory that the Gorky photo is of Marvin as Armenian names were transcribed phonetically and were subject to various spellings. The only fly in the ointment is that the first name Felix is not one I have ever heard attributed to Marvin and also in the Mooradian biography he is referred to as a Vanetzi, i.e. born in the province of Van, Gorky’s birthplace, whereas my great uncle was Harpetzi. The director of the Gorky Foundation Melissa Kerr said that Karlen Mooradian, Gorky’s nephew, who labeled the photo, tended in his writings to mythologize about Gorky’s Armenian roots and would have found it supportive of the myth  to have Felix be a fellow Vanetzi. All that is left for me to confirm the connection to Gorky would be to find evidence of Marvin's  role as a teacher at the New School.                          

Alexander Woollcott

In the thirties he taught magazine illustration at the Exeter School of Art in Boston’s Back Bay. Among several examples of magazine covers he did for Microphone, a journal of radio topics, there is  well- known critic Alexander Woollcott.

"Art Week in Boston" in a Boston Newspaper 

Marvin was already in his sixties, when I was old enough to remember his presence at family get-togethers. He lived a bohemian life in a sparsely decorated studio at 110 Newbury St in Boston’s Back Bay with his mother. He was seemingly able to subsist on a diet of coffee and cigarettes. He often said that if he were ever to be burglarized, the robbers shocked at his poverty, might be compelled to leave something for him. I recall that he had no refrigerator and kept the milk for his coffee out on the balcony in Winter. On occasion our family would visit him and his mother on a Sunday bringing with us a meal of chicken and pilaf. I recall his window shades were attached to the bottom of his windows and lifted up from there to keep the north light always lighting from above. Over the years, I learned bits and pieces of about his life in Boston and Paris, but there is much he kept to himself. I asked him once about the “Bal des QuatZ-Arts” in Paris that was a notorious Saturnalia, where participants typically dressed up or rather undressed as classical Greek sculptures. He admitted attending but was unwilling to talk about the details and said: ”Mum’s the word.” He displayed the same diffidence in the Boston newspaper article(above) about the details of his relation to Sargent.
Portrait of Father with Ashcan school influence

Stylistically his best portraits showed the influence of the Ashcan school, especially when he was free from having to flatter the subject, as in his portraits of his parents. On Askart, a site that lists artist's auction history, he is noted for “floral still lives”. Indeed, our immediate family is in possession of many of them. To my eye it is in these works that the aesthetic of Marvin shines. Each bloom is delicately and never generically observed. There is a feeling of tenderness for each bloom, which must be cherished and not harmed.  Although his work may be lacking in any dialogue with the dozens of “isms” that ruled the 20thc and remained within the language of chiaroscuro, which he learned from his idol Sargent, there is always a sensitivity to presence. It just sings out the fragility and nuance of the moment, the exact instant of apperception.

Flowers by Marvin for which he is known on "Askart"


My father told me, which was typical of his pessimistic reminders of the fickle nature of the economy , that the Exeter School of Art closed down during the Depression. The next evidence of Marvin’s presence in Boston comes in the late 30’s, when he was commissioned through the Federal Arts Project to do a portrait of an admiral for the Naval War College. From then on, he became well known as a portraitist in the Boston artistic community. There is an article about a portrait that he did the early Sixties of the wife of then Governor of Massachusetts, Foster Furcolo.Within the family he was, as it were, the court painter, doing pastels of his nieces and nephews.

Marvin in front of commission of Massachusetts Governor's wife Kate Furcolo


He spent his later years alone in his apartment on Newbury St. His second home was the Boston Public Library, where he read copiously in classical literature. I once noticed him reading Rousseau’s “Confessions”. He must have been somewhat bewildered by the evolution of the art scene in Boston, which in the Fifties was very much defined by the Boston Expressionists. They complained that the explosion of Abstract Art in New York, which they felt was too French and immoral, had sidelined them. I can imagine that Marvin and his devotion to the art of the 19thc felt even more sidelined. Interestingly enough, my teaching career in Boston began two years after his death in 1988 at an art college just up the street from where he taught, as though in some strange notion of karma I had to fill in for his absence from the Boston art world. I had moved to France as he did and  spent a commensurate amount of time there. When I came back in the late 70's and showed the work I had done there at the Bromfield Gallery he came to the opening and quietly advised gallery goers what to purchase. The notion of presence has shaped Western Art and Philosophy since the time of the Greeks, and for several centuries from the Renaissance on this notion of beauty, grounded in the disinterested gaze, reined supreme. It clearly was the underlying principle of all of Marvin’s thinking about painting.

Recently, I came across an inquiry about Marvin on “Askart” by someone one who knew him in the late 70’, early 80’s. Marvin would have been in his mid 80’s at the time. I replied to the email, which was already sitting on the site four years and got this reply, which sums up better than I could the last years of an independent artist who always followed his muse.


Mother Sarah who lived with him the later years .
Painting recalled by Tomas Jonsson

I received, with pleasure, your email regarding Marvin Julian. How did you come by my name? I am surprised, since it was so many years ago that I had met Mr. Julian (as we all referred to him). I was his neighbor in an apartment on Newbury Street, back in the late 1970's/early 1980's. I used to take care of him; visit with him, fetch groceries sometimes, make sure he was okay in the cold. At the time I believed he was one step away from being homeless, and it broke my heart. As you say, he was extremely private and would not talk about much, except his painting. I can still picture his apartment, and smell it… had the strong smell of paint and linseed oil. It was like stepping in to another world, another era. His apartment was always cold in the winter, too cold for an old man with failing eyesight. He often wore a sort of blanket/shawl over his shoulders. *I made him hot drinks, kept him company.
One day he said he would paint me, and I was thrilled and bewildered. I didn't know what to expect. But I knew it was important to him, as his sight failed, and he needed to paint. And, I think, it was his way of saying 'thank you' to me, although he didn't need to, as far as I was concerned. To me he was a great man, mysterious, mercurial, but clearly brilliant. In his almost empty apartment (he insisted, one day, that I should take the area rug, something someone must have given him)  he had two amazing portraits on the otherwise empty and dirty walls. One, which I was awestruck by, was his mother; dark and serious and very formal (I'm sure you know it). So, I sat for him, and very quickly he had a painting which I think captured me so well. I look at it now and find it funny and glorious, as who would not! I'm a young man sitting there, trying to look formal and serious myself, long 1970ish hair, wearing a formal tie and sport coat. I thought I should look the part for Mr. Julian.
I moved house after two years there, and lost touch with Mr. Julian. Although I think he enjoyed my company, he was closed tight, didn't really know how to relate very well, and seemed, so sadly, to be alone and lost in the world and, frankly, waiting out his remaining time. I have always remembered him, always think kindly of him, always will.
Mr. Julian told me that the National Portrait Gallery in D.C. has some of his paintings, do you know if that is the case? I would so love to see more of his work. John Singer Sergeant(sic) has always been my favorite painter, and I see the strong influence in Mr. Julian's work. I've always felt he should be celebrated more for his incredible work, do you know where his paintings are located, museums etc.?
Thank you so much for your email, and I wish you well,
Tomas C. Jonsson

*When I shared this  letter with a cousin whose mother was very close to Marvin, they were somewhat taken aback by the grim image of Marvin's last days portrayed by Mr Jonsson. They periodically visited him  to clean his apartment and replace items which were old and frayed with newer ones. My aunt suggested that the rug he gave to Mr Jonsson was one that she had given him.  Marvin enjoyed the concern of an extended family,who were equally enthralled by this most enigmatic of artists,but proudly portrayed himself as an independent artist to Mr. Jonsson.


  1. Martin,
    The described simplicity and austerity of Marvin Julian's studio on Newbury Street reminds me of the descriptions of Arshile Gorky's studio and how he scrubbed the floors once a week to a high polish. Now with this essay I know both men lived simple lives dedicated to painting, though Gorky’s got more complicated with his move to New York from Watertown and the submersion of identity it required re-emerge as a relative of the Russian Maxim Gorky. Yes, I can imagine Gorky’s shock at seeing his Armenian past show up in the person of your great uncle Marvin at his New York show. (Similar I imagine to the subterfuge Kahlil Gibran used to navigate the Brahim Back Bay and present himself as the artistic son of wealthy landowners in Lebanon when in reality he was living in the tenement next to my grandparents in the poor South End. Maybe the dedication both Julian and Gorky gave to painting was a penance for surviving the genocide in their homeland to pursue careers as artists in the safety of Boston and New York. The photograph of Marvin with his family in Turkey is a pendant to the photo I have e-mailed you of my own grandmother and great grandparents in Damascus taken roughly the same time with all the men wearing the fezzes of the Ottoman Empire. No one in either photo ever smiled it seems. Considering the horror of Syria today (the US Holocaust Museum in Washington is exhibiting some of the 55,000 photos smuggled out of Syria of the starvation and torture of Syrians by Assad Regime) the fact that the Armenian Holocaust started in 1914-15 one hundred years ago is especially tragic if not sickening for the region and its people. So many of them ended up in Boston like the travel agent in Harvard Square who asked me what kind of name Deyab was when he asked for my passport and when I told him Syrian he said he was Armenian born in Syria and had served in the Syrian Army. Or the Syrians like my late mother who used to get rides to the “Armenian store” (the Arax Market) in Watertown to buy the ingredients they needed to cook with. And in my head the image of Gorky painting on the same back porch of those wood frame houses in Watertown and Cambridge still exist and you and I have sat smoking cigars on mine.
    I think in a book on Stuart Davis it was commented on that with so much poverty around in the Depression Gorky always had plenty of expensive paint in his studio and no hesitation in using as much as he needed. Aside from biographies of Gorky, most of what I know of him is from my conversations with Milton Resnick heard over many years drinking coffee in Milton’s old synagogue/studio home. Milton knew Bill de Kooning and Gorky from the Depression days and like de Kooning had great respect for Gorky but he said he was a difficult and at time a fearsome man to know. Two anecdotes come to mind: Gorky told Milton that when you want to make a mark with your brush, at the very last moment put it in the opposite place you meant to. Perhaps this was a result of his friendship with Andre Breton and other Surrealists. I don’t know and Milton didn’t explain. The other anecdote is humorous: apparently if Gorky ever borrowed something from you it was very difficult to get it back. De Kooning once asked Milton to go to Gorky’s studio to get back an overhead projector he used to project drawings that he lent him and wanted back after many months. Milton got into Gorky's building on Union Square and pounded on the door of his studio. Gorky asked who was there and when he heard Milton’s voice opened it. At that point Milton stuck his foot in the door so Gorky couldn’t slam the door shut on him and finally talked him into giving back the projector. Perhaps Gorky was projecting Picasso’s graceful line onto his own..

  2. Thank you Larry for putting him in the context of the genocide and Resnick. I think what strikes me about Marvin and Gorky was their gratitude to those who had made their existence possible. Gorky did his portrait of his mother who brought him into the world ,conveying so much sorrow,tenderness and fragility in the relation of mother and son.Marvin did the rugged portrait of his working class father with his big hands,who slaved away at the Hood Rubber Plant to send his son to France.