Saryan was born in the Armenian community of Nor-Nakhichevan (the town is today part of the city of Rostov-on-the-Don, in the Northern Caucasus). His ancestors were from the medieval capital of Ani and had first migrated to Crimea in the Middle Ages. Afterwards, they moved to Nor-Nakhichevan, founded by Empress Catherine II of Russia in 1780. The town and its surrounding villages were the birthplace of many important figures of Armenian history, such as Mikael Nalbandian, Simon Vratzian, and Catholicos Guevorg VI, to name just a few.
Martiros Saryan studied in the public bilingual (Armenian and Russian) school of his town and graduated in 1895. After following elementary studies of art in his birthplace, he studied painting from 1897-1904 in the School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture of Moscow. He visited Eastern Armenia for the first time in 1901-1902 and sojourned in Yerevan, Vagharshapat, and Ani, among other places. This trip was crucial for his formative years, as it gave him a fundamental knowledge and appreciation of the history, culture, arts, and customs of his people. Following graduation, he completed two years of postgraduate studies in portrait technique. He was in close touch with many members of the Russian intelligentsia and participated in various collective exhibitions in Moscow. He visited Constantinople, Egypt, and Persia in 1910-1913.
From an initial period of pure realism, after 1903 he entered a phase characterized as being “fantastic” painting. His works of the 1910s, while they marked a certain return to realism, were far from being purely realistic. He merged the color thinking of Paul Gauguin, the tri-dimensional understanding of Paul Cézanne, the linear view of Vincent Van Gogh, and certain principles of Armenian medieval miniature, fresco painting, and architecture achieving an entirely “Saryanesque” quality.
He worked in the Moscow Committee to Aid Armenians during the years of the Armenian Genocide and traveled to Echmiadzin in order to help the Western Armenian refugees. The psychological shock he suffered from the dire situation of the refugees was strong enough to have him moved to a hospital in Tiflis. In 1916 he participated in the formation of the Union of Armenian Artists, together with several famous painters (Vardgues Sureniants, Panos Terlemezian, Yeghishe Tadevosian, and others). He later returned to his birthplace.
He moved to Armenia in 1921 with his family and settled in Yerevan. He was named director of the State Museum of Armenia. He also contributed to the organization of the Committee of Conservation of Antiquities and Art, of which he was president, the Union of Workers of Plastic Arts and the Art Institute of Yerevan. He created the coat of arms of Soviet Armenia together with the painter Hakob Kojoyan, who was one of the coauthors of the coat of arms of the Republic of Armenia (the one in use today), in 1921. He participated in the fourteenth Biennale of Venice in 1924. He received the Grand Prix of the World’s Fair of Paris in 1937 for his decoration of the pavilion of the Soviet Union. His works of the Soviet period, perhaps the most known by the general public, marked a return to realism.
Saryan continued to be actively involved in public life and was president of the Union of Painters of Armenia from 1945-1951. He received various honors: full member of the Academy of Arts of the Soviet Union in 1947, full member of the Academy of Sciences of Armenia in 1956, Popular Painter of the USSR in 1960, Hero of Socialist Work (1965), etc.
The house-museum of Martiros Saryan that contains a good portion of his artistic works was opened in 1967. Other paintings are housed in the State Gallery of Armenia and its branches, the Tretiakov Gallery in Moscow, museums of various former Soviet countries, and private collections in the United States, France, and other countries.
Saryan passed away at the age of 92 in Yerevan, on May 5, 1972. In 1986, his statue was erected on the homonymous square, in front of the Opera. One of the central streets of the capital is also named in his honor.