Persistence characterized the life of Aaron Harry Gorson: It helped him overcome obstacles to becoming a professional artist and shaped his career. The eighteen years he adhered to the same theme is the key to his success and, later, the source of disappointment at the end of his life. He was born on June 2, 1872, in the thriving textile center of Kovno (Kaunas) in Lithuania. Although he showed artistic talent as a child, at age thirteen he was apprenticed to a tailor. When he came to America in 1888 to join an older brother in Philadelphia,1 he had to work as a machine operator in a clothing factory. Eventually, however, he managed to take night classes in art ‑‑ first at the Spring Garden Institute of Philadelphia, and then at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1894-1896, 1897-1898). Thomas Anshutz taught night classes during those years; Robert Vonnoh was his assistant in 1894-1895 and Joseph de Camp in 1896-1897.2 Thus Gorson was trained in the school of realism that Thomas Eakins had established and Thomas Anshutz continued. Gorson's class attendance was somewhat sporadic because he had married in 1894 and was working. Still, he obtained a few commissions to do portraits, including one from a young, dynamic rabbi, Leonard Levy. It was Rabbi Levy who in 1899 arranged for Gorson to go to Paris for a year.
In 1900, Gorson was enrolled in the Académie Julian, a school that attracted many Americans who came to Paris to study art. The school was open to all: there were no entrance examinations or qualification tests, and tuition was paid a month at a time. The curriculum consisted of drawing from casts and from live models and painting from the model. The instructors who came into the studios every week to critique the student work were members of the Institute des Beaux-Arts; that is, they represented the establishment art community. Gorson worked under Jean-Paul Laurens and J.J. Benjamin Constant, who alternated their critique sessions monthly.3 Years later, a reporter related that Laurens thought Gorson a good colorist, but "he was constantly warned to improve his drawing, to which subject he had never given sufficient time."4 Like other students, Gorson obtained a license to copy masterpieces at the Louvre and contemporary painters at the Palais du Luxembourg. In the evenings, he went to the Académie Colarossi at 10 rue de la Grande Chaumiére. There, among students from around the world, he continued to work from the live model.
Gorson tried to squeeze years of training into one, but perhaps he profited most from the fact that Paris was a competitive, intensely active, professional artistic environment.5 In this milieu, Gorson found his style in the work of Whistler. The aging artist, whose studio was near the Académie Colarossi, had won the Grand Prix in etching at the Exposition Universelle of 1900. His famous Arrangement in Gray and Black: Portrait of the Artist's Mother (1872) was hanging in the Palais du Luxembourg. A Pittsburgh interviewer later wrote, "Whistler seems to be the one artist of the century for whom [Gorson] has an unbounded admiration."6
Gorson returned to Philadelphia to practice portraiture. In 1902, his portrait of a violinist was exhibited in the Room of Honor at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and a life-size painting of a girl was exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago.7 In 1903, he followed his patron Rabbi Levy to Pittsburgh. Levy had been appointed rabbi of the Reformed congregation Rodef Shalom. In Pittsburgh, Gorson was able to get commissions to paint portraits of such socially prominent people as Mrs. W.S. King, the wife of a glass manufacturer.8 At the same time, he began painting the steel mills along the river. He gave a small painting of a steel mill in the morning light to Rabbi Levy in 1904 (private collection) and submitted Pittsburgh's Wealth with two portraits to the 1904 Annual International Exhibition at the Carnegie Institute. By 1909, all the paintings he submitted to the International were industrial landscapes.
Between 1908 and 1921, Gorson showed nine paintings at seven Internationals. During this period he exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery, National Academy of Design, Art Institute of Chicago, City Art Museum of St. Louis, and Rochester's University Art Gallery. He also contributed to Pittsburgh's artistic life. He was among the first members of the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh, of which James Bonar, an industrialist and artist, was the first president. Gorson and Christ Walter were instructors together at the Stevenson Art School in 1913-1914. In March 1917, he was a member of "A Group of Pittsburgh Painters" who exhibited together at the Carnegie Institute. The group included the leaders of the local art scene ‑‑ James Bonar, Will J. Hyett, Arthur W. Sparks, Fred A. Demmler, Ralph Holmes, George W. Sotter, Charles L. Taylor, and Christ Walter. In October 1917, he was granted a solo exhibition in Gallery L of the Carnegie Institute as part of the Annual Associated Artists of Pittsburgh Exhibition. From 1908 to the time he left in 1921, he had annual exhibitions at J.J. Gillespie and Co. Galleries on Wood Street, and later, at Wunderly's Gallery.
In Pittsburgh Gorson became identified with paintings of steel mills. Eventually, however, he exhausted both his theme and his natural market. In 1921, he moved to New York, where he entered another artistic milieu: he became a founding member of the Grand Central Art Galleries and painted the Hudson River and such New York sites as the Flat Iron Building. Yet, as he wrote to a friend in Pittsburgh in 1926, those "darned Pittsburgh subjects" haunted his imagination. In May 1928, the Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce sponsored an exhibition of Gorson's canvases.
Gorson died unexpectedly in October 1933 at age sixty-one, from complications during an operation. He left a wife and three sons. In 1934, a Memorial Exhibition was held in Pittsburgh to help his family. His Pittsburgh friends acknowledged that he was a pioneer in painting the mills and recalled his drive and singular focus. Today, his paintings hang at the Duquesne Club, the Pittsburgh Athletic Association, The Carnegie Museum of Art, the Press Club, and in many private collections in Pittsburgh. The Heckscher Museum, Huntington, New York; the Grey Art Gallery and Study Center, New York University; the College of Earth and Mineral Science Museum, Pennsylvania State University; and the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, Greensburg, Pennsylvania also own paintings. His works are regularly exhibited in regional retrospectives in the Pittsburgh area. In 1967, a solo exhibition was mounted at the Carnegie Institute.
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1 Bernard Gorson, interview with author.
2 Cheryl Leibold, Archivist, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, interview with author, 24 October 1988.
3 Alphaeus Cole, "An Adolescent in Paris: The Adventure of Being an Art Student Abroad in the Late Nineteenth Century," American Art Journal 8 (November 1976): 112.
4 Thomas Seltzer, "A Jewish Artist," Jewish Criterion, 23 October 1903, p. 3.
5 Described in John Milner, The Studios of Paris: The Capital of Art in the Late Nineteenth Century (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988), pp. 11-16, 25-26.
6 Seltzer, "A Jewish Artist," p. 4.
8 Pittsburgh Dispatch , partially dated clipping (photocopy), Gorson Documentation File.