Kahlil Gibran was born in Bsharri in present-day Lebanon to a Maronite Christian family. His family later moved to the United States in 1895 where he first explored his passion for arts and humanities, albeit against many odds. Gibran’s family settled in a Syrian slum in the South End of Boston. During Gibran’s youth, his brother and sister died of tuberculosis and his mother of cancer within a span of a couple of months. His tumultuous childhood inspired a sense of rebellion within Gibran, causing him to reflect on the conditions of society’s poor, neglected, and oppressed and encourage a narrative of empowerment and self-determination for those living in it. Despite his financial and familial tribulations, Gibran studied painting at the Denison House and later attended the Academie Julian in Paris.
Kahlil Gibran the Writer
Gibran was the leader of The Pen League (al-Rabitah al-Qalamiyah) which comprised of Arab writers of the Arab-American diaspora (also known as the al-Mahjar). The society sought to “to lift Arabic literature from the quagmire of stagnation… and to infuse a new life into its veins.” The Pen League brought together talented young novelists, poets, and journalists and created a strong sense of community and purpose for Gibran.
Throughout Gibran’s life, he nurtured deeply intimate relationships with those that crossed his path, regardless of their status and affiliations. His dearest friends were extremely varied: from his lover, Mary Haskell, a Boston school teacher to Abdu'l-Bahá, the eldest son of the Bahá'u'lláh, founder and leader of the Bahá'í Faith. It is an honour for Sotheby’s to present to the public a rare glimpse into the mysterious personal life of the celebrated Kahlil Gibran. Among these rare items are 33 letters written from 1908 to 1920 during his travels to New York, Boston, Atlantic City and Paris, from the artist to his friend and patron, Madame Marie Azeez El-Khoury.
Madame Marie Azeez El-Khoury was a poster-child of the American Dream. An unusual occurrence for a Syrian-Lebanese woman at this time, Marie El-Khoury rose from a modest immigrant background to become nothing less than a celebrity in the circles of the New York City elite. She started her career in journalism, but later due to her father’s unexpected death, took over his trade, and became a notable gem dealer and jewellery designer.
It has been said that Khoury’s dinner parties were “legendary”, and such an invitation was among the most coveted in the city. But even amid Khoury’s many cultured friends, she had a particular reverence for Gibran’s ability to electrify and enthuse; her obituary cites her sentiment, “[Kahlil Gibran] was a great raconteur. When he spoke all listened.” Among the many roles Khoury played in her life, she was also a known patron of The Pen League. She sponsored the early and most pivotal years of Gibran’s career. Her contributions allowed Gibran to pursue his first publication in 1912, Broken Wings, the forerunner to his epic writing career.
The community Gibran fostered became an inextricable part of his creative production, supplying the artist with the necessary fodder for understanding the power of positive relationships for the human soul—teaching Gibran notions of love, care and joy amid a sterile and callous society. Some of his closest acquaintances such as Ameen Rihani, Richard Le Gallienne, Youssef Beik Moushi and Mrs. Jarbel are even mentioned by Gibran in the letters he had written to Marie El-Khoury.
This extensive group of letters brings to light the last major collection of Gibran memorabilia whose existence was practically unknown until recently. They are particularly important as they reveal Gibran’s thoughts at critical junctures in his life which he describes as key turning points while also uncovering a personal and intimate relationship with Marie El-Khoury. The 33 letters written mostly in Arabic and some in English on plain and letterhead paper with a consistent use of a particular colophon, were addressed to El-Khoury from Boston, New York, Atlantic City and Paris and are paramount in being witness to Gibran’s work as both a writer and an artist. The letters include drawings by Gibran in certain subjects which would evolve into some of his most famous compositions such as the drawing of a hand holding fire. Gibran mentions another well-known drawing within these letters, entitled Two Masks – also known as Eclipse that he later on exhibited at a gallery in New York as well as two of his Arabic books, Spirit Rebellious (1908) and Broken Wings (1912).
Kahlil Gibran the Painter
Gibran moved to Paris in 1908 at the age of twenty-five to study painting, where he first explored the growing modern art scene of the city. In Paris, he met childhood friend from his Arabic studies in Beirut, Youssef Hoyeck, and together they left their art teacher, Pierre Marcel Berroneau, to work independently. In 1910, he exhibited a painting at the Societe Nationale des Beaux-Arts and later that year, he presented more than half a dozen works at the Union Internationale des Beaux-Arts.
Gibran wrote, “I have already seen the two sides of Paris, the beautiful and the ugly. I am here to study both sides…” His Parisian paintings are testaments to the Symbolist and Romantic genres. These exceptional works seek to explore the immaterial beauty within an imperfect world. While in Europe, Gibran and Hoyeck travelled to London where they first fantasised about their ideas for a cultural revival in the Arab world. Together with Hoyeck, Gibran drew plans for the Beirut Opera House with twin domes representing the synthesis between Christianity and Islam.
Gibran was known for his unadulterated spirituality and heightened capacity for contemplation. His iconic works in all of his various mediums—painting, drawing, narrative prose and poetry—are rooted in the mystical, perhaps tethered to his interest in Sufism. It is a true pleasure for Sotheby’s to showcase three exceptional studies by Kahlil Gibran, including Study of a Portrait of Paul Wayland Bartlett, the famed 20th century American sculptor, executed during his tenure in Paris. Additionally, Sotheby’s is presenting two captivating drawings from the pivotal years leading up to the publication of The Prophet. The studies, much like many of his drawings, have a distinctive duality to them—balancing both a sense of divine beauty with an opposing sinister quality. These studies are expressive in his use of line and form and act as a gateway into the interior of the multidimensional Gibran. The works for sale are rare objects to appear in auction, only passing through the hands of Gibran’s closest friends and their descendants.
Marie El-Khoury the designer
Marie Azeez was born in Lebanon and moved to the United States as a child in 1891 with her parents Tannous Azeez and Julia Tabet. Her father started a jewelry business in lower Manhattan but later moved his business to Atlantic City, New Jersey. Marie attended Washington College for Young Ladies in Eckington graduating in 1900 when she was just 17 years old. She is considered to be possibly the first Lebanese-American or Arab-American young woman to graduate from a college.
As a young woman, Marie Azeez wrote for Arabic-language publications in the United States and intended to have a career in journalism. Marie Azeez married magazine publisher Esau el-Khoury in 1902. She was widowed at age 21 when Esau died in 1904. When her father died in 1905, Marie took over Tannous Azeez's jewelry business and moved it back to New York. She retained the business's name "The Little Shop of T. Azeez" in her father's memory. Her designs were featured in Vogue, The New Yorker, and in The Christian Science Monitor.
She continued writing, including some jewel-themed short stories syndicated in Sunday newspapers across the United States. Marie El-Khoury donated a bound volume of Al-Dairah magazine (1900-1901), the "first magazine published in Arabic in the Western Hemisphere," to the Library of Congress in 1945. She was also a member of the Board of Trustees at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. Marie Azeez El-Khoury died in 1957 at age 74 in New York. The New York Times obituary described her as "one of this city's leading and most original jewelry designers."
Translation of a letter
O Beloved Marie,
Beginning Sunday and up till this hour, I have been among friends and acquaintances, like a boat in the middle of the sea rolled by the waves and buffeted by winds, I became tired of being honored and flattered and invited, however, I am yearning for the golden corner that is filled with quiet and silence - and now, I stole an hour from my friends and came to a room to be alone and talk to you to revive my spirit with ideas and dreams that swim around my head when I sit alone and think of you. You, Marie, are like the pure morning breeze carrying the fragrance of flowers and breaths of bouquets. So, when I think of you I feel an internal ease as though my spirits have been bathed by waves of this perfumed breeze.
Christmas has passed but it did not leave in my heart except regret, longing, and sad memories. However, I put on the appearance of happiness and joy before those whom I like and who like me. And I hate putting on appearances, even the kind that makes other people happy. Holidays, Marie, are seasons of happiness for some people but seasons of sadness for many.
I will return to New York by the end of the week, and were it not for some work I would return tomorrow, but it is life that steers us sometimes through valleys and other times to the top of the mountains. And even though I consider myself to be free, I still am obliged to pay attention to my work and the relationships my work has created with others.
I long for you, O Marie, with all the yearning of fire. I long for the playing, laughter, and smiles, and for the touch of your hands and your shoulders. And I long for your teasing me!!
Think about me a little if you are able, and allow me to place a small kiss—a very small kiss—on your tender palm.
May the heavens keep you
27 Tyler St. (Boston)
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