Although Gorky created a number of important abstract works in the 1930s, including the Nighttime, Enigma, Nostalgia series, he was also occupied with portraiture and figuration through the early 1940s. Study for Mother and Son is a poignant visual meditation on the artist's mother and is related to both versions of The Artist and His Mother (colls. The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). As Diane Waldman notes, "The extraordinary emotional intensity and formal economy of these two canvases are unsurpassed in Gorky's oeuvre, save for the great work of the 1940s" (exh. cat., op. cit., New York, 1981, p. 33)
Gorky's portraits were based upon deeply personal sources. Although he looked particularly to the work of Picasso, Ingres and Corot for formal solutions in these works, photographs and memories served as his primary inspiration. Indeed, Gorky possessed a photograph which served as a direct catalyst for the emotions upon which he drew to create The Artist and His Mother. He referred to his portrait paintings as his "Armenian portraits," and indeed they bear similarities to traditional Armenian manuscript imagery in their solemnity, dignity and frontality (ibid., p. 35). Study for Mother and Son also recalls Picasso's Blue and Rose periods in the mood and lyrical use of line to convey emotion, and brings to mind Ingres's eloquent draughtsmanship. Like Czanne and Picasso, whom Gorky admired greatly, he occupied himself with the search for formal relationships underlying his representational imagery. Yet ultimately, portraits such as Study for Mother and Son reveal his desire not only to emulate the great artists of the past but to search for an affirmation of his own past and identity. Indeed, Gorky spoke of these works as the beginning of his true self-expression.