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Object of the Month: Self-portrait Aged Seventeen, 1834

Posted 16th February 2017
Watts Contemporary Gallery

By Dr Cicely Robinson

Painted when G F Watts was just 17, it is perhaps surprising that this early self-portrait is such a confident and accomplished depiction of the artist. Created in 1834, the year before Watts was admitted as a student to the Royal Academy Schools, this work sums up his early ambitions as an artist. With dishevelled Byronic hair, bohemian dress and an arresting gaze, Watts presents himself as the Romantic artist-genius.

Throughout his career, self-portraiture provided Watts with an important creative tool. As he later explained in a letter to a longstanding patron, Charles Rickards, 'I paint myself constantly; that is to say, whenever I want to make an experiment in method or colour'. This early canvas bears all the marks of painterly experimentation. While the face is highly finished, the jacket and lower canvas are only lightly sketched.

A small pencil sketch in the bottom left of the canvas strengthens the impression that this work was intended as a painterly study on a reused canvas. The inclusion of this small seated-male nude certainly creates the illusion of rapid creativity, as if the artist has seamlessly moved from one inspired idea to the next. Perhaps the inclusion of this small sketch was in fact a more deliberate and playful act? Its presence gives the illusion of brilliant spontaneity to a work that was far more likely to be planned and deliberate in its presentation of the artist.

This self-portrait remained in Watts's studio during his lifetime. It was eventually exhibited in 1896-97 at the New Gallery in London.

As the bicentenary of Watts's birth approaches in 2017, this early self-portrait occupies a prominent place on the walls of Watts Gallery. It continues to be a painterly celebration of the early aspirations and accomplishments of this leading Victorian artist.