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 Koren Der Harootian  (1909 - 1992)

About: Koren Der Harootian


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Lived/Active: New York/Massachusetts / Jamaica      Known for: painting and sculpture-heroic figures, religion

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Armenian-born American sculptor, Koren Der Harootian was originally a painter, but turned to sculpture while a resident in Jamaica, the British West Indies.  There he carved heroic figures in lignum vitae, eucalyptus and other hard woods.

His work often deals with allegorical and Biblical themes.  The emotions of man, his eternal battle against evil, and the sense of turmoil in an age of wars and revolutions are given symbolical expression in his work, transfixed in wood or stone.

A small man of about five feet four inches tall, with black hair and brown eyes, Koren was the fifth of the seven children of Haroutun and Nevart (Mouradian) Der Haroutunian, Khoren Der Haroutunian (who became known as Koren Der Harootian).  He was born on April 2, 1909 in Ashodavan, near Kharput in Armenia (Ashodavan, then under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, is now part of modern Turkey).  Koren had two brothers, Bedros and Haigaz, and four sisters, Marian, Rose, Isqouhi, and Zemruth.  His father was a priest of the Armenian Orthodox Church and the schoolmaster in the small town until his death in the Turkish massacres of 1915.  After the rest of the family had taken refuge in the mountains, Koren became separated from them, was captured by the Turks, and made to work as a shepherd.

A year later his brother Bedros found him and led him across the Russian border to rejoin his family. A fter a short while the mother and her children were obliged, because of the Russian Revolution of 1917, to go to Constantinople (now Istanbul) Turkey.  Since Koren's health had been severely impaired, he had to spend almost a year in a hospital there and underwent several operations.

The family eventually moved to the United States, and in 1921 settled in Worcester, Massachusetts, where Koren attended grammar school and the North High School, from which he was graduated in 1928.  To Miss Anna McAuliffe, his high school art instructor, he credits his ambition to make art his career.  He attended the classes of Victor Humann and other teachers at the Worcester Art Museum School and financed his purchases of art materials by selling newspapers.

By means of a grant for art study from his high school, young Der Harootian was able to spend two summers, 1928 and 1929, painting at Provincetown and Gloucester, Massachusetts.  Upon receiving the St. Wulstan scholarship of $250 in 1930, he went to New York.  There his watercolors came to the attention of the late art dealer Caz Delbos, who happened to see the young man standing outside his gallery in the rain and invited him to come in.  From this chance encounter came Der Harootian's first one-man show, which was held at the Delbos Galleries in 1930.

Upon the invitation of a friend, Der Harootian decided to visit Jamaica.  His trip was made possible by the sale of twelve of his watercolors at $60 apiece.  The drawings and paintings he did of the landscape and people of Jamaica came to the attention of Sir Hugh Walpole, the novelist, who discerned their inherent sculptural form and suggested to the painter that he begin to work in three dimensions. (The writer described one of Der Harootian's watercolors in his novel The Inquisitor.)

Some of Der Harootian's early paintings of Jamaica were shown in 1931 at a museum there, and others were exhibited in New York by Delbos that year.  Edward Alden Jewell, then The New York Times art critic, found Der Harootian's work "vividly alive, splendid alike in drawing and in color, quite worthy of being compared with the work in this medium by masters like Winslow Homer and [John Singer] Sargent."

In the fall, 1931, Francis Henry Taylor, then director of the Worcester Art Museum, presented a Der Harootian one-man show, from which the watercolor Patience was bought for the museum's permanent collection.

By the time Der Harootian held another show in Jamaica in 1938, he had sold enough paintings to finance a trip to England and had completed five mahogany sculptures.  After his arrival in London, he worked on his paintings and sculptures in a studio in Soho.

Examples of his work were shown at the Zwemmer Gallery in its 1938 Christmas show, at Goupil's 1938 and 1939 salons, and at the Leicester Galleries' 1939 summer exhibition, to which he contributed the sculptures Bird and Fish (in lignum vitae) and Creation (in mahogany).  Another mahogany piece, Hermaphrodite, was included in a 1938 show which toured the British Isles.  In Jamaica the availability of native woods had led Der Harootian to use that medium, but in London he worked on his first stone pieces.

While a resident in England, Der Harootian on May 13, 1939 married Hermine Ohanesyan, an artist, singer and writer.  At one time, the sculptor had been devoted to sports--running, swimming, wrestling, and boxing; but he later began to study literature and music.  He belonged to the Armenian Orthodox Church, and was a member of the Sculptors Guild, the Society of Audubon Artists, and the Rockland Foundation.  Time magazine quotes him as calling sculpture "a beautiful profession" which he would not change "for anything in the world." He works directly in wood or stone; and once explained this, saying: "If I make a sketch or clay model first, I find that my best has gone into it. I prefer to work the stone direct."

He returned to Jamaica in 1940, and concentrated primarily on sculpture; his themes often reflecting an intense concern with contemporary conflict.  Suffering Mankind, Dying Warrior, and Fallen Grenade Thrower date from this period.  When Der Harootian went back to the United States in 1944, he brought these sculptures which were shown at the Kraushaar Galleries in the fall of 1945.

A change in concept was evident in Der Harootian's work of the succeeding period, when the predominance of a mystical element became evident. Some of the pieces which revealed this new trend in Der Harootian's work were shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Pennsylvania Academy exhibitions in 1946 and in 1947 at the Art Institute of Chicago and at the Sculptors Guild in 1948.

With the increasing monumentality of his work, Der Harootian in the fall of 1948 obtained the use of the open air space north of Washington Square in New York. There the Sculptors Guild had just held its showing, and exhibited fifty-two of his sculptures, which included Thinker, Orpheus and Eurydice, and David and Goliath). The New York Herald Tribune critic found the show "a ripe and ringing testimonial to accomplishment from both physical and aesthetic viewpoints.... These exhibits ... are equipped with strength and meaning sufficient to give pause to the most casual observer" (September 19, 1948).

At the 1949 Whitney exhibit, Der Harootian's Seabird and Fish was considered "quite the most striking design in the entire show" by the New York Herald Tribune critic.  The Time magazine critic observed of his sculptures: "The fact that they seemed far less abstract than they were in actuality was a measure of the sculptor's power to create illusions without slavish copying."

Time (May 30, 1949) characterized Der Harootian's Rebellious Slave as one of the "best of the relatively representational items" at the Fairmount Park Art Association's Third International Exhibition of Sculpture, held at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in May 1949.  Der Harootian, as well as Jose de Creeft, Jacques Lipchitz, Jacob Epstein and others, were commissioned to execute pieces to complete the Ellen Phillips Samuel Memorial which is located on the bank of the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia; Der Harootian was to be represented by an eight-and-a-half-foot figure which would be entitled Inventor.

The sculptor began work on the symbolic piece in 1950 after he moved from New York City to a Rockland county studio, where he was able to carve the monumental figure out of doors.  At the 1950 Sculptors Guild annual exhibit, his Job, "wondrously and affectionately tooled in Vermont black marble," was singled out by Belle Krasne (Art Digest, April 1, 1950) as "the show's religious triumph." The May 1950 exhibition of the Society of Audubon Artists at the National Academy of Design in New York found Der Harootian the recipient of the $100 prize for his Pillar of Salt. During February and March 1950 he had his first one-man show in Philadelphia at the Art Alliance; the Philadelphia Inquirerspoke of the "impressiveness" of certain of his pieces shown.

In conjunction with the painter Vaclav Vytlacil, Der Harootian exhibited at the studio of the Rockland Foundation at West Nyack, New York in the summer of 1953.  His contributions included Leda and the Swan and Crowned with Thorns. On exhibition at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York in the spring of 1954 were six sculptures by Der Harootian.  On May 26, he was awarded the $1,000 annual grant in sculpture by the National Institute of Arts and Letters.  The citation accompanying the grant said it was "in recognition of a distinguished artist whose sculptures in stone and wood reveal strong spiritual and emotional depth." The art critics especially noted Jonah.  During that spring, Der Harootian also contributed his "massively rhythmic reclining mother and child, Birth of Davit of Sassoun (based on an Armenian legend), to the Whitney annual exhibition.

Other awards received by Der Harootian for his sculpture are the first prize (1944) of the Springfield (Massachusetts) Art League, the gold medal (1948) and first prize (1950) of the Society of Audubon Artists, and an honorable mention (1950) from the Architectural League of New York.

In 1954 he received a $1,000 grant from the National Institute of Arts and Letters in New York.  The sculptor is represented in private and museum collections in the United States and Great Britain. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has his Prometheus and the Vulture in its permanent collection.

For his sculpture Descent from the Cross, described by Howard Devree in The New York Times as a "highly reverent but unconventional" work, Der Harootian received the George D. Widener Memorial gold medal at the annual art exhibition of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1954. Walter E. Baum of the Philadelphia Bulletin was of the opinion that the "Der Harootian figure is carved with much of the interpretive zeal that characterized the work of the old sculptors of Christian eras when symbolism meant so much to the church."

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