Arshile Gorky

The Betrothal, II

Not on view

Indebted to Kandinsky and Surrealism, Arshile Gorky’s mature paintings also anticipate many of the formal concerns of the emerging Abstract Expressionism movement. Painted one year before the artist’s death, The Betrothal, II features a lyrical assortment of odd, organic shapes against an overall field of soft luminous color. Although the painting appears spontaneous, Gorky actually made a number of studies for it, exploring over and over again the same fluid, biomorphic forms that suggest, along with the title, narratives of sexuality and procreation. Indeed, the attenuated shapes that emerge from the ocher background appear on the verge of metamorphosis. Some art historians have suggested that the work refers to the artist’s increasingly troubled marriage to his second wife, but ultimately The Betrothal, II, along with Gorky’s other paintings and drawings in the same series, eludes simple explanation.

Arshile Gorky

The Betrothal, II



Oil and ink on canvas

Overall: 50 3/4 × 38 in. (128.9 × 96.5 cm) Frame: 51 3/16 × 39 × 1 15/16 in. (130 × 99.1 × 4.9 cm)

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© artist or artist’s estate


  • America Is Hard to See

    Arshile Gorky, The Betrothal II, 1947

    Arshile Gorky, The Betrothal II, 1947


    Narrator: Curator Barbara Haskell.

    Barbara Haskell: Arshile Gorky's Betrothal acts as a bridge between realism and abstraction. It incorporates realistic subjects but so camouflages them as to hide them from the viewer. The title, Betrothal, suggests that it has something to do with the relationship between a man and a woman. 

    Although the images in the painting itself are not suggestive enough to either rule out one explanation or to suggest that another predominates, so that in some ways it's a very open ended picture that he's created, one that allows the viewer, him or herself to read it and interpret the different images in a way that seems fit. 

    Gorky treats his paint almost as if it's a watercolor medium. He lays down an initial coat of paint and then applies these almost translucent layers of paint on top of that so that one reads his paint as if one is seeing through an atmosphere.

    He also leaves the accidental drips and marks of the paint on the canvas, uses them to create other forms. And in that way, very much served as a precursor to the Abstract Expressionists who followed and who took advantage of the accidental markings of the paint as, in fact, the subject matter, in some cases, of their art.

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