When Tennessee Williams swapped his pen for a paintbrush, his tendency to use his lived experiences as source material did not alter much. He often painted places he’d seen, people he knew, or compositions he conjured up in the limekiln of his imagination. Although Williams painted more frequently later in life, precisely as a creative outlet when his brand of theatre was no longer in vogue, he had started sketching and painting from a very early age. To follow his career as a painter is, to a large extent, to trace his life’s alterations, physically, of course, but also emotionally. As a young man in his late teens and early twenties, he painted the great outdoors. He was shy and not yet fully aware of his homosexuality, so only nature, via the various landscapes or still-lifes he produced, was allowed the privilege of returning his gaze. In college, he would eventually emerge from his shell, and by the time he graduated from Iowa and first arrived in New Orleans in the winter of 1938, he was ready to embrace life and all that it had to offer.
His paintings at this time reflect this liberated youth: he abandoned landscapes for the most part and turned to painting portraits of the people he met, knew or loved, just like his character Nightingale in the nostalgic play Vieux Carré (1977), about his first trip to the French Quarter. And one of the people there whom he first met, came to know, and finally love was—himself. Not in any narcissistic way often attributed to selfies, but in an almost Wildean, Dorian Gray sort of way. Even in this first extant self-portrait, most likely painted in 1939 when he was road-tripping with his friend Jim Parrot to California, we find the elder Williams’s self-mockery of his youthful pretensions in the phrase added in ink on the bottom left: “Very flattering, even then!” Williams would often reread entries in his youthful diaries—another form of self(ie)-expression—years later and add self-reflexive comments such as this one.
In another self-portrait, this one painted circa 1947, just before the success of A Streetcar Named Desire would confirm his sense of self-worth to an endearing public, Williams displays an honest self-awareness of the realities of aging. The disheveled hair and the stylish Clark Gable mustache are visual signs of the era and proof that nearly a decade had passed since his last self-portrait. More important, thought, is the gaze, the fact that Williams can no longer look the viewer straight in the eyes. Isn’t the selfie defined by its direct eye contact with the camera lens and, by extension, the viewer? And doesn’t this direct gaze precisely draw that viewer—or voyeur—through the megabytes of internet space that separate the subject from the viewer? Here, Williams’s refusal to directly confront our gaze recalls several other self-portraits, notably Van Gogh’s, whose subject equally deflects eye contact and, consequently, elicits discomfort among its viewers. Consider the woman (Wood’s sister, in reality) in Grant Wood’s American Gothic, and all the ink spilled over her deflected gaze. Or, perhaps, in distinguishing a self-portrait from a selfies, it is not the eyes at all here that matter, but rather the mouth. Williams’s pout, or even sneer, in this painting is a far cry from the ubiquitous, 75-watt smile that defines a selfie.
When Williams’s literary career began its decline from the mid-sixties onward, he turned to drugs. His briefly sketched self-portrait from circa 1972, more a self-caricature really, captures beautifully his transition from the hell of the sixties to the purgatory of the seventies (he was, after all, Catholic now, since his brother had coerced him to convert following Williams’s brief stint in a psychiatric ward in St. Louis). Not only can he not hold the view’s gaze here, but he can barely hold his own. This self-portrait, unlike the painting from 1939, is now indeed “flattering,” and that wry smile of his owes as much to the rye he consumed as it does to the euphoria he must have felt in finally completing the manuscript of his Memoirs (published in 1975)—a book that is arguably more selfie than self-portrait.
A second self-caricature sketched a couple years later in 1974 portrays a “No Neck Monster” Williams (an allusion to Maggie’s disparagement of Mae’s children in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) seemingly more in control of himself physically than emotionally; his depression here is rather obvious, countered, as it often was around this time, by black humour and the self-recognition that his plays were only going to be produced “off-off-off-off-off B’way,” if they were going to be produced at all.
The older Williams grew, the fewer the portraits he painted. He still painted friends, lovers and acquaintances, but the subjects of these works no longer occupy the same space on the canvas as they did in the portraits he had painted 20 years previously. The subject of these portraits is now part of a larger mise-en-scène, a composition, usually abstract or expressionistic, that deals more with a theme and less with a person: beauty (male, yes, but also androgynous), sex (often but not exclusively homoerotic), or love and immutability (physical and spiritual alike). Aware that he, too, was becoming the fanned magnolia that was Blanche DuBois in his masterpiece for the American stage, Williams nonetheless still found the inner strength and the will to paint his self-portrait.
Featured image credit: “Which Sea Gull?” (Manuscript draft of Memoirs), ink on typing paper, n.d. (ca. 1972). Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library. Used with permission.