Painting by Artist Ervand Toros Demirdjian
After returning to Constantinople he was faced with the persecution of the Turks against the Armenians. In 1896 he fled with a group of Armenians and reached Alexandria and from there he moved to Cairo.Together with 2,000 other Armenian refugees he began a miserable life until the local Armenian community led by Decran Pasha did its best to shelter and feed them. After a short time Demirdjian was able to become apart of the Egyptian popular life and started studying their mode of life and mannerism. This led to an enormous quantity of drawings and paintings documenting everyday life.
He participated in some of the annual exhibitions of the Circle of Artists which is the first artistic group in modern Egypt. In 1901 he began lecturing art and teaching in the Khorenian Armenian School where he tutored students privately and the most talented was the knownpainter Diran Garabedian (1882-1963) who became his successor and one of the first avant-garde in Egypt.
Ervand Demirdjian lived and worked satisfied in a flat on a roof ofa khan in M.Ali Street, not far from Islamic Cairo where he got most of his inspiration. But under the pressure of need he began teaching atAnathor School in Boulac and from time to time he accepted commissions to paint portraits.
Demirdjian is known for his orientalistic subjects where he excelled in the the social scenes of old Cairo and the Nile. To summarize his work we can say that Demirdjian began as an orientalist but later during his creative years he became truly an Egyptian artist and that is why he can be classified as both. In addition he was the first Armenian Egyptian professor painter in modern Egypt.
Ervand Toros Demirdjian was born on 24 May 1870, at Yeni Kapu, a quarter of Constantinople, where he spent his childhood.
His family consisted of his father and an elder brother, his mother, three sisters and himself. His grandfather was a blacksmith; hence his family name was Demirdjian (demirdgy in Turkish means blacksmith).
After ending his elementary studies at the local Armenian school, he entered the recently established School of Fine Arts in Constantinople and graduated with honors.
In 1893, encouraged and accompanied by Arshag Tchobanian (1872-1954), an Armenian intellectual, he went to Paris and enrolled in the Julian Academy becoming a student of painter Jean-Paul Laurens (1838-1921), and also to the famous orientalist painter Benjamin-Constant (1845-1902). At the same time he worked at the Louvre studying and copying classical works such as Delacroix’s Dante and Virgil crossing the Styx.
By mid-1894, he returned to Constantinople, hopeful and enthusiastic. But the persecutions of Armenians during 1895-96 brought and end to his bright hopes.
Following those tragic incidents, thousands of Armenians fled abroad. Thus, on a sunny day in September 1896, a ship reached Alexandria, carrying on board a group of Armenian refugees, among them was our young artist.
It is not difficult to imagine the mental state of the young artist at that moment. This state was reflected in his tormented psyche through the rest of his life, in spite of his serious efforts to overcome it, especially during his early years in Egypt. Thus, he became known as a timid and solitary personality, but he never became a misanthrope, probably owing to his gentle and mild character, as well as his devotion to art, which became a psychic compensation for his tragic experiences. His art is not full of optimism, yet it is flooded with love and sympathy towards life and humble people.
In Egypt, Demirdjian’s life and the lives of more than two thousand refugees were initially very hard; they were miserable, unhappy and devoid of any income. The local Armenian community led by men like Dikran Pasha Abroian, did its best to provide them with shelter and food.
Regardless to this, Demirdjian; being an active person; began discovering the country and its inhabitants, sketching everything around him with increasing passion. His essential preoccupation was to study humble Egyptians, their lifestyle and manners. Being a simple and humble man like them, he was able to penetrate to their psyche and to reflect it sincerely on his canvases.
In those early days of his life in Egypt, he participated in some group exhibitions in Cairo. He also taught art both in Armenian schools and privately, Diran Garabedian being his most important private student during the years 1898 to 1900.
In this early period the artist shared ardently through his artistic input, in the efforts of Armenian people to overcome the tragedies of the persecutions (book illustrations, independent drawings, etc.)
Artistically, Demirdjian created hundreds of sketches and studies (mostly with pencil on paper), which involved series of interesting ethnic, facial and gesture studies, studies of domestic animals, and also a group of around 30-40 pieces of preliminary oil-on-canvas studies of modern Egyptians, which were intended originally to be a starting point for human configurations in his scene compositions (townscapes). The works of this group are independent small masterpieces of oil painting. One of his best early works is his Self-portrait (1903), which clearly reflects his introverted personality.
During his early years in Egypt, Demirdjian was not isolated socially or artistically. He attempted to get out of his psychic crisis through his several activities and achievements, to become a significant individual in society.
In early 1920’s, a new period began in his life, this period may be considered as
comparatively a peaceful and quiet one, both for himself and for the Armeno-Egyptian society. At that time, Armenians had their republic and in 1922 Egypt became an independent kingdom. Political struggles took a milder form, and major conflicts did not take place till the 2nd World War.
Demirdjian lived and worked peacefully in a flat on the roof a khan (wikala) in 155 Mohammed Ali Street, not far from Islamic Cairo, the source of most of his subject matter. He did not get married, hence his appearance was rather careless, and yet on the other hand being free of family duties he was able to concentrate entirely on his art.
Therefore we can surmise that he enjoyed his art that he created essentially for his self-satisfaction, caring very little for fame or money.
Only due to the pressure of financial need, he once again became an art teacher at Kalousdian Armenian National School in Boulac, Cairo (till 1924). From time to time he also accepted commissions to paint portraits of deceased persons from photographs.
But the most important commissions he received were to execute several large religious paintings inspired by Italian Renaissance masters. These paintings are displayed in the Armenian Orthodox Church at 179 Ramses street, Cairo.
He painted a copy of The Last Supper of Leonardo da Vinci, with accuracy and technical mastery, without having an available or reliable reproduction of the original.
At his later years, Demirdjian inevitably and gradually became more solitary and psychologically isolated. He had few close friends: photo-engraver Aram Berberian (1893-1975) and painter Vahram Manavian (1880-1952), who always encouraged him to participate in artistic activities. This led to a two-man Demirdjian-Manavian exhibition that took place in March 1933 in Cairo. However, only few paintings were sold to the much disappointment of both artists.
A few years after the exhibition he discovered a tumor under his tongue. Initially he was indifferent but gradually it turned painful and he suffered a lot. At last his friend Aram Berberian convinced him to travel to Paris for cure. His death occurred on 17 September 1938, at “Hopital Curie”. He was buried in a public cemetery in Paris.
This is how the life and agonies of Ervand Demirdjian came to an end. He was an artist who did much for his nation, and also for his second homeland Egypt, which he loved and respected ardently, as well as for the international orientalist movement in art.
Demirdjian had no heirs in Egypt, since at the moment of his death his three sisters were abroad; therefore his properties were kept at the Armenian Patriarchate of Cairo. According to the archival documents at the Patriarchate, his legacy comprised 229 oil paintings (50 portraits, 163 pieces of scenery which included landscapes, seascapes and nilotic scenes, 16 still life-s; a total of 229 works) and 7 watercolors. Most of these works were sold through auction later on for the benefit of his heirs abroad.
His style and work
Technically, Demirdjian developed a kind of robust realism, employing chiaroscuro, tenebroso coloring, and a reach and delicate brushwork. His compositions are well balanced, his figures well designed and constructed.
His style is essentially quiet and sensitive, objective and emotional, not fixated or subjectivist like his most talented disciple and successor, Diran Garabedian.
Demirdjian was a tonalist throughout his creative life, exploiting the unlimited tonalities of browns and blues. This was the basis of his color compositions.
He never used the slow technique of sfumato (except when executing a small number of commissioned naturalistic or hyper-realistic portraits or some religious Italian Renaissance inspired works and copies), but used a bold and quick brushwork, which builds up a strong chiaroscuro and helps to heighten the emotional impact. The juxtaposition of different tones of the same hue shape the form, and the delicate minor touched of some auxiliary colors (like red and yellow-ochre), add to the vitality of the texture.
His realism is not idealized, being objective and true to life. He created hundreds of pictures of ordinary humble Egyptian individuals, full of sympathy and respect towards them. He tried to immortalize their gestures and facial expressions.
Some artists and critics that came after Demirdjian, like painter Ashod Zorian and critic Aimé Azar, underestimated his art as being old-fashioned and decadent but they couldn’t realize that he was one of the precursors of modern Egyptian art, being artistically formed in 19th century Constantinople, where the prevailing style was the European academism. In addition to that, historically someone had to “summarize” the previous centuries of art before others entered into the modern schools and movements. That became the “mission” of Ervand Demirdjian.
The orientalist artists’ original purpose was to record correctly the life of Islamic East, in order to achieve a truer understanding of it. Therefore Realism was normally an attribute of Demirdjian’s art, and it was also conditioned by the factors mentioned above.
Most importantly we can consider that Demirdjian achieved an understanding of the humanity of Egyptian individuals depicted by him on his canvases.
Demirdjian’s creative efforts can be summarized as follows:
Hundreds of sketches which involve:
Drafts or rough sketches (Fr. Croquis)
Sketches (Fr. esquisses)
Studies (Fr.etudes). Those are fine pencil drawings with detailed work and hatching, which depict small human gestures and individual facial expressions, and even ethnic characteristics.
Some graphic works (sepia ink) which served as illustrations for books, also some drawings (pen and ink) that illustrated Armenian people’s cause.
A number of watercolors, mostly of Egyptian scenes, some of which are rough, while others are delicate and well done.
Oil paintings; about 350- 400 pieces, which involve:
traditional landscapes (about 80-100 pieces), Nilotic scenes, Still Life-s, and Cairene Souq scenes of symmetrical composition.
a number (30-40 pieces) of very important preliminary oil-on-canvas studies of humble Egyptians, which were used as a source for human configurations in Souq scenes as well as genre scenes.
genre scenes (about 80-100 pieces), which depict simple corners of Islamic Cairo; with popular types as essential (and not complementary) elements.
A considerable number of portraits (about 60 to 70 pieces) of modest Egyptians like fellahs, and habitants of popular quarters in cities (Ibn el-Balad and Bint el-Balad).
A small number (15-20 pieces) of commissioned pictures. There are two types of these pictures:
portraits, mostly executed from photographs of deceased persons (some medium sized and others of large size)
large size religious compositions, e.g. The Last Supper (1928), which is a capable copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous mural work, and The Dormition of the Virgin (1931),…etc
Recognition of Demirdjian’s art
Very little was written about Demirdjian and his art during his life. After his death he was virtually forgotten, as being considered by many a conservative and old-fashioned artist. However after many years his historic importance and artistic merits were acknowledged, thanks to the big retrospective exhibition held at the Cairene Hanager Art Center (6 to 12 March 1997).
From then on, critics and art lovers “discovered” that he was the first Armeno-Egyptian painter in modern times, who established a tradition which comprises (till recently) seven successive generations of Egyptian artists of Armenian origin.
Nowadays, most of Demirdjian’s works are scattered here and there, without being documented scientifically. But, fortunately his memory was immortalized through an illustrated art book published in Cairo (1997) by the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU-Cairo). This book is considered as the most important reference on the artist’s life and art.
- A short article written about Demirdjian (in Armenian) by Souren Bartevian who published it in his almanach (1st year 1914, page 261).
- Several short articles written (in Armenian) by Haroutioun Manavian who was known as Sargavak, published in different issues of his yearly almanach (Alexandria and Cairo).
- A longer article (in Armenian), written by the doctor whom the artist resorted for the last time in Cairo, Dr. Bedros Misakian. It was published in the Almanach of Manavian (issue of 1939, page 54).
- Avedissian, Onnig; Peintres et Sculpteurs Armeniens, Le Caire, 1959, page 313
- Keshishian, Hrant; Ervand Demirdjian, Armeno-Egyptian painter, Cairo 1997
Best known for his paintings of the sites, scenes and characters of 1900s Cairo, the Armenian-Egyptian artist Ervand Demerdjian captured the daily encounters of his life in the city. After travelling to Paris, Demerdjian attended the Académie Julian and studied under Jean Paul Laurens and the Orientalist painter Benjamin Constant.
Upon his return home to Constantinople, Demerdjian encountered increased Turkish aggression towards Armenians and fled to Alexandria, Egypt in 1896. Later living near Fatimid, or Islamic Cairo, Demerdjian painted and drew scenes of his adopted home that included portraits and gestural studies.
Although his style subscribed to Orientalist approaches, Demerdjian began to infuse more expressive emphases into his later work. From 1901, he lectured at the Khorenian Armenian School in Cairo and participated in some annual exhibitions of the Circle of Artists, the first group of its kind founded in modern Egypt.