‘I paint myself constantly’: G F Watts’s Self-Portraits

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Posted 17th April 2020

G F Watts's Self-Portraits

Dr Stacey Clapperton, Curatorial Trainee

'I paint myself constantly, that is to say whenever I want to make an experiment in method or colour, and I am not in the humour to make a design'. [1]

G F Watts painted himself frequently throughout his career. Yet, aside from viewing his self-portraits as vehicles for experimentation, we can also detect levels of performance in these works as they became ways for him to explore his artistic identity throughout his lengthy career.

Executed in 1834, Self-Portrait aged 17, is Watts's first painted self-portrait. In this unfinished, yet confident sketch, the forms are firmly drawn. Yet, neither the flesh of the face nor his clothing have been extensively painted. We can see that his white shirt collar and green cravat, with the lapels and shoulders of his jacket briefly sketched out in a few strokes of brown paint. In this portrait he has cast himself as a Romantic and it is often compared to the portrait by Amelia Curran Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1819 (National Portrait Gallery, London) due to the similarities in pose, gaze and clothing.

With his face in shadow and adopting a simple expression, Watts stares directly out at the viewer and we look back at him, just as he observed himself in the looking glass. By meeting our gaze, he is self-assured, as if aware of his artistic talent the year before he enrolled at the Royal Academy school.

Almost 20 years later, aged 36, Watts painted the largest self-portrait of his career: Self-Portrait in a red robe, c.1853. Throughout the 1850s Watts experimented with the Italian Renaissance technique of fresco. Indeed, in its restrained approach to paint application, combined with an ambitious scale this self-portrait is like that of Lady Sophia Dalrymple c.1850-53 (Watts Gallery Trust). Both portraits evoke the fresco technique and were painted whilst the artist was undertaking work for the Lincoln's Inn mural commission.

Painted almost life size and with a low viewpoint, the viewer must literally look up at the artist in this portrait. As with the earlier self-portrait, he looks directly out at us. Due to the dominant red robe, this work is often referred to as The Venetian Senator and was surely influenced by his first visit to Venice during the summer of 1853. No longer a Victorian, Watts presents himself a Renaissance man at this crucial point in his career.

When we arrive at his final self-portrait, painted in the year of his death, the small, modest scale of his first portrait has returned. In Self-Portrait, 1904, Watts painted himself in profile with his recognisable white beard, wearing the skullcap and robes that the public were familiar with. In these choices of presentation Watts aligned himself with the Old Master painter Titian, whom he greatly admired. In fact, this self-portrait can be considered as a mirror image to Titian's Self-Portrait, 1566 (Museo del Prado). [2] In associating himself with the artist he admired, Watts quite literally asserts himself as an Old Master painter. Describing the work in later years, Mary recollected how 'as a likeness […] it is the most perfect that exists'. [3]

Each of the self-portraits discussed here remained in Watts's personal collection during his lifetime. As private studies they were created for his own amusement to experiment with colour, method and his own identity. But as historical records of this great artist, their significance today has eclipsed their original purpose. As it has been argued:

' […] the best self-portraits are far more than personal memorials. Many artists draw each successive spectator into an intimate exchange, and through this exchange they ensure their immortality in the hearts and minds of others'. [4]


Footnotes

[1] G F Watts quoted in Mary Seton Watts, George Frederic Watts: Annals of an Artist's Life: Writings on Art, vol. I (London: Macmillan and Co. Ltd., 1912), p.245.

[2] Marks Bills and Barbara Bryant, G F Watts: Victorian Visionary (New Haven and London: Yale University Press in association with Watts Gallery Compton, 2008), p.282.

[3] Mary Seton Watts, George Frederic Watts: Annals of an Artist's Life: Writings on Art, vol. II (London: Macmillan and Co. Ltd., 1912), p.319.

[4] Anthony Bond, 'Performing the Self?' in Self Portrait: Renaissance to Contemporary, eds. Anthony Bond and Joanna Woodall(London: National Portrait Gallery, 2005), p.31.