Researching My First “Dangerous Women” Portrait – Sarah Aaronsohn

As I’m still compiling my list of fascinating women, I decided to just start with the first one alphabetically, and that is Sarah Aaronsohn.

Sarah Aaronsohn

Sarah Aaronsohn

Sarah Aaronsohn was a spy during World War I, part of a spy ring called the Nili. Her life is fascinating! Born in Israel, she made a safe marriage to a wealthy man and moved to Instanbul, then left her husband to return home. On her way back, she witnessed part of the Armenian genocide, including seeing thousands of Armenians being bound together and burned on a pyramid of thorns. Seeing the genocide made her want to do something, which is what led to forming the Nili with her brother and some other friends. When finally caught, she reportedly survived four days of torture before convincing her captors to let her go back home to collect some personal items, and while in her house, shot herself in an attempt to not reveal any information. While lingering for a few days in the hospital, she kept begging the doctors to kill her. And then she finally died without revealing any information. In addition to all of this, she also seems to have had a lover in the spy ring and occasionally wore men’s clothing. But interestingly, there are two different stories about her – the one the more conservative Jewish groups developed in the middle of the 20th century downplay her role in the spy ring and make no mention of the lover or crossdressing, but instead praise her more as a maternal/supporting figure in the spy ring.

I am chagrined to admit that I don’t remember ever even hearing about the Armenian Genocide. I imagine it’s because the US wasn’t involved in any way, except for a few protest groups. The research I’ve done is appalling and heart-wrenching, though. And you’d think there’d be a brief mention at least, as the Turkish massacre of the Armenians was the inspiration for the Nazis. A sentence letting students know that in the high school history books would have been nice. But neither the Turks nor the Armenians were white, the US involvement was negligible, and I guess allowing high schoolers to think the Nazis invented the cruelties of the Holocaust is a stronger story than teaching that they merely adapted and improved upon the ideas of the Ottoman Empire (and by “improve” I mean make more efficient and kill many more people). So I get it, in a way, but it still annoys me that I was ignorant of such an important part of world history. I have the feeling that I’ll be feeling like this a lot as I continue creating these portraits.

So now I’m in the sketching phase for the portrait. I still don’t know how abstract or symbolic I’ll get, which is fun to try to work out. I hope to start putting paint down at the end of March.


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