Khalil Gibran: An Immigrant Artist on 10th Street
Both the reach and the origins of those who have called the Greenwich Village Historic District home have always been international in scope; Khalil Gibran is a prime example of that broad reach. Born on January 6, 1883, in Lebanon, which at the time was part of Ottoman Syria, educated in Beirut, Boston, and Paris, the artist and poet found himself drawn to the bustle of New York. From 1911 until his death in 1931, Gibran lived in an artist studio at 51 West 10th Street. There, he created paintings, wrote philosophy, and produced his most celebrated book, The Prophet, one of the most widely read, published, and translated books in the history of literature. Gibran’s writings influenced a broad range of philosophers, theologians, writers, and even musicians, including John Lennon, David Bowie, Johnny Cash, and even Elvis Presley (who always kept extra copies of the book around to give to his friends).
Khalil Gibran, Artist, and Villager
Though he considered himself to be mainly a painter, Khalil Gibran is best known for his English language writing. Gibran was a key figure in the Romantic movement. This literary movement transformed Arabic literature in the first half of the twentieth century, with direct influence from the European Modernists.
Gibran created sketches, short stories, poems, and prose, which spoke to love, knowledge, independence, loneliness, modernity, religion, and other philosophical topics associated with the romantics. These topics are treated head-on, with frankness, humor, and an eye toward what really matters in the human condition. The tradition of Arabic poetry and literary prose can be found in his writings, especially in the disciplined form of his poems, which followed rules even in English.
Gibran considered New York his home. At his Greenwich Village studio apartment, Gibran hosted friends and beloveds for talks, art viewing, philosophy, and celebrations. It was in that apartment where he wrote his mystical, lyrical, and groundbreaking work, The Prophet. The book is one of the best-selling books of all time, earning Gibran an international literary reputation.
Gibran’s Studio Apartment at 51 West 10th Street
The now-demolished 10th Street Studios were built in 1857 by James Boorman Johnson and architect Richard Morris Hunt, as housing and workspace for artists. The building was inspired by Hunt’s time in Paris. Consisting of twenty-five rooms, each had a coal-burning iron stove, and adjoining studios were connected by doors which could be thrown open for showings. Artists paid rent of $200 per year.
In 1920, Johnston decided to sell the property, so the artists joined together to form The Tenth Street Studios, Inc. and purchased the building. This would allow the building to survive until 1952 when the group sold the building. It was demolished in 1955.
Other artists who lived in this building included John La Farge, Frederick McMonnies, Winslow Homer, and Albert Bierstadt. A mid-century apartment building replaced the Studio Building.
The Pen League
Gibran quickly found admirers and companions among the Arabic writers in the Village and in Little Syria, located south of the West Village in today’s Financial District. Together with the writer Mikhail Naimy, Gibran co-founded the first New York Arab-American literary society, which they called The Pen League. It was also called “The Mahjar School,” and Gibran served as its president.
Part of the League’s inspiration came from the writers’ personal interactions with their time, travels, and lives in the West, while still being rooted in Arabic literature and their birthplaces of Ottoman-ruled Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine. The first Arabic-language magazine published in New York, Al-Funoon was edited by Nasib Arida – another member of The Pen League – from 1913 to 1918. This magazine served as a mouthpiece for young Mahjari writers, including Gibran. Al-Funoon means “The Arts.”
The Pen League threw a special dinner in Gibran’s honor on the evening before his 46th birthday, January 5, 1929. The dinner celebrated his artistic and literary accomplishments as well as the community Gibran had helped to build as an internationally-admired artist who remained dedicated to his New York literary community.
This wonderful photo “captures the vitality and sophistication of the early Arab-American immigrant leaders, revealing their accomplishments in all fields and showing the evident solidarity among a diverse group of different religious backgrounds, all bound by the Arabic language. They could gather together to celebrate the success of one of their most famous literary lights,” according to historian Robert Goodhouse.
Just two years later, Gibran died at the age of 48. He died at Saint Vincent’s Hospital, at 7th Avenue and 12th Street, heartbreakingly due to cirrhosis of the liver. Gibran was buried in Lebanon. His beloved friend and benefactor Mary Haskell helped to purchase the grounds of a building in Lebanon which, to this day, is the Gibran museum. Gibran left behind hundreds of letters and other writings that were not published during his lifetime.
Thanks to Village Preservation’s interactive GVHD50 map marking the milestone of the Greenwich Village Historic District’s 50th anniversary, you can find Khalil Gibran’s entry on our Writers of the GVHD50 tour, to visit the many places around the Greenwich Village Historic District where legendary artists once lived, spanning all sorts of eras and genres. Visit the full tour here!
Read more posts about GVHD50 here.