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1880 Self-Portraits for the Uffizi

In 1880, two works by senior Academicians, George Frederic Watts (Fig. 1) and John Everett Millais (Fig. 2), attracted much critical attention. Both titled Portrait of the Painter, they were, according to the Catalogue: “Painted by invitation for the collection of Portraits of Artists, painted by themselves, in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence”. Already highlighted in the press in advance of their appearance, these self-portraits were destined for an audience well beyond the rooms of the Royal Academy. Their positioning in the galleries at Burlington House conveyed the importance of the commission as they hung at the focal point of Gallery III (in effect, the Great Room) of the Academy. It was clear that these works would have a brief outing in London before going abroad to join the famed collection of artists’ self-portraits which had its origins in the era of the Medici.

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How had Watts and Millais come to paint their works for the Uffizi? It was thanks to the relatively new President of the Academy, Frederic Leighton, whose election in November 1878, following the death of seventy-five-year-old Francis Grant, marked a new era in the history of the institution. Leighton opened out the Academy by virtue of his cosmopolitan background and outlook. Attaining the presidency as he was about to turn forty-eight, he brought vigour, purpose, and his highly refined social skills to the job. While staying in Florence in October 1879, as part of his role as head of the British art establishment, Leighton met with the director of the Uffizi Gallery. Their discussion focused on the lack of representation of the contemporary English school in the great collection of artists’ self-portraits. How instrumental Leighton might have been in introducing this subject is not known, but straightaway the director invited him to submit his own self-portrait and to recommend two other artists to send theirs as well. Although British artists of the eighteenth and earlier nineteenth centuries featured in the collection, the practice had fallen off for at least a generation. Leighton had no hesitation in naming Watts and Millais, endorsing them as the best representatives of contemporary art to a European audience. Both artists had recently made outstanding appearances in the Exposition Universelle (1878) in Paris, showing more works (ten each) than any other contributors. Watts’ nine paintings (including Love and Death and one sculpture) gained the only first-class medal for a British artist. 

For Watts, the request to paint a self-portrait for the Uffizi struck a chord, as he had lived in Florence in the 1840s and considered the collection of artists’ self-portraits there as “the most interesting gallery I know”.1 He was, in addition, an avid painter of his own image, in direct contrast to Millais for whom there are no finished oil self-portraits prior to this date. Both artists adopted the convention of depicting themselves as professional painters, wearing brown work jackets and holding palettes. Set against a plain background, Millais looks out with a steady gaze, very much a man of the present day. In contrast, Watts evokes the Old Masters, not only in the detail of his Titian-like skullcap, but also in the glowing Venetian colours of the background. There is a seriousness of purpose in his approach to the self-portrait as he aggrandises his image by situating himself in profile in front of a recent major work, Time, Death and Judgment.

It would take Leighton another year to complete his own self-portrait for the Uffizi, but at the Academy in 1880, Watts and Millais were paired at the far end of Gallery III, the largest space in Burlington House. If one stood in the Central Hall, the two works marked the end of the axial view on the main wall of Gallery III. Indeed, at least one reviewer commented on the positioning of these works as pendants “at the head of the Great Room”.2 The placement of these paintings set up a dialogue between Watts and Millais as leaders of the British School with essentially different points of view. Millais had attained success and wealth with his choice of popular subjects and the display of his virtuoso technique, whereas Watts aspired to be a modern Old Master.

Thanks to Leighton’s international connections, British art went out into the world with a newly heightened reputation. Contemporary accounts lauded these “Foreign Honours to English Art”.3 The two self-portraits by Watts and Millais were about to travel to Italy to join the gallery of the greatest artists in history where they would keep company with Rembrandt, Titian, and Reynolds (and where they still hang today). These works resonated beyond the rooms of Burlington House, as this Academy Exhibition placed contemporary British artists on the world stage. 

  1. M[ary] S. Watts, George Frederic Watts: The Annals of an Artist’s Life (London: Macmillan and Company, 1912), Vol. 1, 245; see also Barbara Bryant, G.F. Watts Portraits: Fame & Beauty in Victorian Society (London: National Portrait Gallery, 2004), no. 59 for the context of this comment of 1869 and a full discussion of the painting.↩︎

  2. The Illustrated London News, 1 May 1880, 434.↩︎

  3. The Times, 7 April 1880, 9.↩︎

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Explore the 1880 catalogue