Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Self-Portrait, early 1930s 

Augustus Edwin John RA OM (1878-1961)

Self-Portrait, early 1930s, Augustus Edwin John
Oil on canvas
20th Century
24 x 20 in (61 x 50.5 cm)
Mrs W. M. Cazalet, London Arthur Tooth & Sons Ltd., London Estate of Robert Montgomery Scott, Ardrossan, Radnor, Pennsylvania
New York, British Council, British Pavilion, New York World''s Fair, Exhibition of Contemporary British Art, 1939, cat. no. 53. Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Augustus John, January - March 1968, cat. no. 21.#LINEBR
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All portraits present various challenges to the viewer. The most obvious is whether the artist has been able to penetrate beyond the sitter’s façade; do we see a mere replication of likeness, or can we also see a representation of character? Self-portraits are perhaps the only occasions when we can be certain that character and likeness are portrayed with equal honesty and clarity. No greater proof of this exists than in Rembrandt’s self-portraits, where an autobiographical summation of his life can be plotted from bright youth, to successful middle age, and finally through to the despair of retirement.

Self-portraits can be reasonably divided into ‘public’ or ‘private’ examples. The former are typified by works in which the artist consciously shows off his skill, as many of Van Dyck’s self-portraits do. Occasionally self-portraits were used as adverts to attract patrons by artists such as Enoch Seeman, who, having no existing clients, was forced to use his own face as the only model available.

Such deliberately exhibitionist self-portraits are frequently more experimental than other works, for, without the pressures of time or a patron’s desires, the artist could focus directly on his talent, and, ignoring the constraints of fashion or etiquette, produce a pure distillation of skill. As a result, self-portraits tend to stand out amongst a painter’s oeuvre as their best works. Michael Dahl and Sir Peter Lely’s self-portraits, to take two early English examples, stand head and shoulders above their regular portrait commissions.

However, self-portraits are just as equally private affairs, and often remarkably so. The present example by Augustus John must rank amongst the latter category. It displays no hint of ego, self-promotion, or even flattery. It is instead poignantly direct, and rather sombre in its use of a limited range of pigments. It also seems to be deliberately, imperfectly, left unfinished. As a portrait, it relies simply on the characterisation of the sitter. Thus our attention is easily drawn to the piercing intensity of a man who, by the time this picture was painted, had entered the most destructive and troubled phase of his life.

John’s reputation as both a genius and an artistic ‘great’ was firmly established by the 1930s. In many ways he had little left to prove, and it is tempting to see this self-portrait as a momentary, experimental introspection. It perfectly fits the description of his inter-war portraits as being painted with sudden ‘fits of seeing’, and, in its rapidity and virtuoso handling is reminiscent of Wyndham Lewis’s description of John; ‘a great man of action into whose hands the fairies had stuck a brush instead of a sword’.
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