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T.W. - Self-Portraits of the Playwright: Tennessee Williams’s Paintings, Poetics, Prose

John S. BAK


Pendant l’été 1939, Tom « Tennessee » Williams a peint son premier autoportrait au moment même qui a marqué son entrée dans le monde du théâtre new-yorkais. Bien qu’il y ait peu de doute que Williams finirait par être un dramaturge à part entière, il n’a jamais abandonné entièrement sa peinture – ou son obsession pour l’autoportrait. Pour Williams, des traces de ses expériences vécues peuvent être trouvées dans presque chacune de ses œuvres, tant textuelles que graphiques. S’appuyant sur la théorie de l’(auto)biographème de Barthes et sur l’étude sociologique de l’autoportrait de Hall, cet article étudie ce premier autoportrait graphique en parallèle avec des nombreux autoportraits textuels (mémoires, essais, lettres et entrées de journal intime) que Williams a écrits autour de 1939 dans le but de montrer comment, en se complétant, les autoportraits graphiques et textuels documentent sa transformation de Tom à Tennessee.

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1Like many a great artist who privileged persona over person, Tennessee Williams was a self-portrait in flux. He drew repeatedly upon his lived experiences to narrate his many stories, fictional and autobiographical alike, leaving porous the barrier between genres that traditionalists protect. In his introduction to Williams’s Collected Stories (1985), Gore Vidal quips: “These stories are the true memoir of Tennessee Williams. Whatever happened to him, real or imagined, is here” (xx). Williams admitted as much in his essay “The Past, the Present, and the Perhaps” (1957), expounding that “nothing is more precious to anybody than the emotional record of his youth,” and readers can readily follow the “trail of [his] sleeve-worn heart” carved into nearly every one of his works (New Selected Essays 80). Thomas Lanier Williams III created “Tennessee” over time and repeatedly projected him onto the page and stage, a self-portrait that was as real and true as it was hyperreal and wrought.

2In an early article on Williams’s dramaturgy from 1972, “The Distorted Mirror: Tennessee Williams’s Self-Portraits,” Nancy Tischler examines this need in Williams to project his self into his work:

He is in love with an idealized self-portrait, which he understandably continues to garb more elaborately while failing to comprehend more fully. So long as he allows the self-portrait to reveal himself without authorial interference, he succeeds; whenever he tries to intellectualize and explain and universalize that portrait, he fails. (389)

3This line of criticism, singularly driven by a biographical determinism that reduces art to anecdote, dogged Williams throughout the second half of his career and well into the decade immediately following his death. Even by 1989, Gilbert Debusscher argued in his essay “The Gnädiges Fräulein: Williams’s Self-Portrait among the Ruins” that the play Slapstick Comedy (1966) “embodies Williams at his most intimately and artistically personal” and “might well appear as an almost exhibitionistic self-portrait” (72).

4What is most telling, though, is that when his early critics voiced their objections to yet another Williams self-portrait on the stage, Williams responded as would a painter. “It takes ten years of a man’s life, usually, to grow into a new major attitude toward existence and the world he lives in,” he wrote to New York Post columnist Max Lerner in 1951:

Painters have it better. They are allowed to evolve new methods, new styles, by a reasonably gradual process. They are not abused for turning out creative variations on themes already started. If a certain theme has importance, it may take a number of individual works to explore it fully. (Selected Letters II 376-77)

5In spite of the criticism he received from the 1960s onwards, or perhaps as a blatant affront to it, Williams continued writing self-portraits, including Vieux Carré (1977), another ghost play about the younger Williams’s entrance into the professional world of letters. It would appear that the Italian Renaissance adage often attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci, Ogni pittore dipinge sè (Every painter paints himself), could, in Williams’s case at least, be reconfigured as Ogni scrittore scrive sè – Every writer writes himself . . . again and again and again.

6Although Tischler and Debusscher here are discussing Williams’s penchant for reproducing a particular brand of self-absorbed Romanticism that runs the gamut between the empathetic Tom Wingfield and the caricatural Fräulein, the same assessment could apply to his other self-portraits: the several paintings and doodles he made of himself from the summer of 1939, when “Tennessee” was quickly displacing “Tom,” up till 1978, when the beleaguered Southern “Tenn” resurrected the younger Midwestern “Tom” to help create, populate and even narrate some of his late plays, including, in addition to the two noted above, A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur (1979), Clothes for a Summer Hotel (1980), The Notebook of Trigorin (1981), and A House Not Meant to Stand (1982). Collectively, these explorations of the man qua man lies somewhere between Augustine’s Confessions and Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, between public self-abasement and liminal self-obsession, between the playful subjectivism of Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656) and the sobering objectivism of Magritte’s La Reproduction interdite (1937).

7Writing astutely about Williams’s paintings in general, though in terms that could equally apply to his self-portraits, William Plumley notes in his article “Tennessee Williams’s Graphic Art: ‘Two on a Party’”:

  • 1 Plumley is one of the first critics to write about Williams’s paintings. For other criticism on Wil (...)

The topics as well as style of Williams’s paintings are, with rare exception, sensual, primitive, compulsive, and, arguably, sexist and infantile – much like the undiluted material of his extraordinary but private life prior to its transformation into the strange and tender world of his plays. . . . They are compelling. Not because of subtlety or technique, but because they provide a glimpse into the fertile preoccupations of the greatest American playwright of the twentieth century at moments unguarded. . . . (804)1

  • 2 As W. Ray Crozier and Paul Greenhalgh point out, “There have been historical changes both in the mo (...)

8While Williams did not paint as often as he wrote, there was never a time when he did not paint or draw, evidenced by the nearly four decades of his self-portraits. As he told Plumley, he had, “as far back as he could remember, a serious interest in being a painter, as did another writer whose work at one point obsessed him: D.H. Lawrence” (791). Painting, be it of others or himself, was simply another means for Williams to summon his muse, to take stock of his surroundings and to provide a needed outlet to vent the pent-up creativity inside him that was not escaping through his writing.2 It was not uncommon to find Williams during the 1970s and early 80s sitting behind a canvas as often as he was a typewriter, a thin paintbrush now replacing an even thinner cigarette holder.

9Among the fourteen known graphic self-portraits by Williams – seven paintings and seven sketches (or self-caricatures) – the early ones date from the summer of 1939, a time when Williams was still discovering his creative style, graphically and textually, and his sexual identity. Studied in isolation, these graphic autobiographies appear amateurish, rushed even and, perhaps, to a certain extent they are, something even Plumley admits. But so, too, are many of Williams’s early textual self-portraits – his nonfiction essays, letters and journal entries – and yet, recent biographical and critical studies have made ample use of them in producing a more complete portrait of the playwright’s “fertile preoccupations” during those “moments unguarded” in his life. Drawing on Roland Barthes’s theory of the textual biographeme and James Hall’s sociological study of the graphic self-portrait, this article studies the first of these graphic self-portraits alongside the many textual self-portraits (memoirs, essays, letters and private notebook entries) that Williams produced in or about 1939 in the aim of demonstrating how, in complementing each other, the graphic and the textual self-portraits document his transformation from Tom into Tennessee.

1. “[A] picture of my own heart”: Williams’s textual self-portraits as autobiographemes

10Self-portraits function as a narrative historiography that reconstitutes, reorders or reconstructs what Roland Barthes has described in the Preface to his Sade, Fourier, Loyola (1971) as the biographèmes of a person’s life, those individual moments or photographic impressions that represent discrete fragments of a larger truth, such as one’s date of birth or high school senior portrait:

Were I a writer, and dead, how I would love it if my life, through the pains of some friendly and detached biographer, were to reduce itself to a few details, a few preferences, a few inflections, let us say: to “biographemes” whose distinction and mobility might go beyond any fate and come to touch, like Epicurean atoms, against some future body, destined to the same dispersion. (9)

11Largely unintelligible in isolation, like phonemes to sounds or morphemes to words, biographemes elicit meaning only when they are structurally combined to produce biographical knowledge, where the gaps between the recorded events are as important as the events themselves. A biographer, like a film editor, cuts the story of a person’s life into manageable scenes and, leaving some clips on the cutting room floor, stitches together into a compelling narrative what he or she deems to be the best fragments. These fragments, however, are highly subjective and context-dependent, though most audiences would agree that selective highlights of a person’s life make for a more compelling spectacle than exhaustive narration. Biographemes, and the manner in which they are combined, have as much to say about the biographer as they do about the subject him- or herself, a phenomenon that led Barthes to conclude that all biography is essentially fiction.

12Unlike historical biography, textual self-portraits celebrate those gaps in time that become biographemes and reproduce not only the what of a given life but also the what could have been. The concept follows the phenomenological precept that all history, including biography, is based on a personal narrative and thus contingent upon subjective determinism. The closest that we can get to objective history is one that is agreed upon (at least provisionally) by the majority, though actual facts may be misinterpreted, misconstrued or ignored altogether. In terms of Williams’s life story, biographies written about him in the pre-Stonewall, post-Stonewall and homophobic Reagan years unavoidably reveal a different man simply because the biographer’s era has influenced his perception of Williams and the open secret of his homosexuality.

13More problematic is when the biographer is actually the subject himself, where the collection of preselected autobiographemes muddles the text’s clear fiction/nonfiction divide. That writer’s autoportrait – a French term that evokes both the graphic self-portrait and the textual autobiography – becomes no more accurate than a novel based on the subject’s life and no less truthful than his authoritative biography. As Barthes writes in his own autobiographical essay, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (1975), the (auto)biographeme is “factitious anamnesis: the one I lend to the author I love” (109). Rachel Gabara understands Barthes here to mean that the “source of such a biographical fragment is its writer’s desire for someone else (the object of biography) and not the life of this other author. The shift from biographeme to autobiographeme, therefore, is by no means self-evident” (6).

14Is the self-portrait, textual or graphic, made for the self or for the other? And in the process of creation, how much truth is actually rendered in the representation, intentional or otherwise? Barthes forewarns his readers that his autobiography cannot be considered as factual since, handwritten inside the book’s cover, appears the following caveat: “All this must be considered as if spoken by a character in a novel.” Due to the fallacy of selective, reprocessed or imaginative memory, an autobiography cannot reveal the truth about himself but only morsels of truth that he considers important to his development. Lacking critical distance about one’s own intellectual growth, Barthes concludes, forces an autobiographer not to “analyze himself” but to “rewrite himself”: “Autobiography is thus a genre of surface rather than depth and his own life is like a patchwork quilt” (Gabara 8). By extension, then, the self-portrait in any form of media is paradoxically objective fiction masquerading as subjective fact.

  • 3 See also Lejeune, Je est un autre. L’autobiographie de la littérature aux médias and Le Pacte autob (...)
  • 4 Original quote: “la formule opératoire de l’autoportrait est : ‘Je ne vous raconterai pas ce que j’ (...)

15Philippe Lejeune and Michel Beaujour have both explored this epistemological space between the autobiography and the self-portrait. For Lejeune, the autoportrait is part story (autobiography) and part self-portrait (theme) (Moi aussi 203), and, for Beaujour, it is more the structure and less the content that defines the autoportrait: “the operating formula of the autoportrait is: ‘I will not tell you what I did but I will tell you who I am’” (9, my translation).4 To a great extent, Williams’s many textual self-portraits are examples of Barthes’s autobiographemes, Lejeune’s “pacte autobiographique” and Beaujour’s “autoportrait” as each tends to rewrite more than simply recount Williams’s life.

16For instance, Williams repeatedly said that he would never write an autobiography because he felt the plays spoke for him. When his agent Audrey Wood asked him as early as 1965 to start writing his autobiography, he was insulted, believing she meant that his career was now over, and he responded to her directly in an unpublished essay entitled “Twenty Years of It” (c. 1965):

I thought my agent should know that my biggest and last indiscretion would be to come out with the sort of autobiography that I would write if I wrote one. I would have to write it in the psycho-analytical style of free-association, and if I did write it, which I am not about to do, now or ever. (1)

  • 5 For studies that open up that metabiographical approach to Williams’s nonfiction in general, see Ba (...)

17A dozen years later, history would prove him wrong: he did indeed write that autobiography but held true to his claim that it would be written in “the psycho-analytical style of free-association” that he had practiced with Dr. Lawrence Kubie back in 1957 and, consequently, the memoirs ride a razor’s edge between fact and biofiction.5

18In hindsight, his decision finally to write his memoirs should not have come as a shock to anyone, least of all Audrey Wood: he had been writing his self on paper for decades, just as he had been sketching it down in notebooks or painting it on canvas. Williams was virtually incapable of not injecting some part of him, be it is tortured psyche or his insatiable desire, into his work, making nearly everything he wrote or drew or painted a self-portrait to a certain extent. And though he wielded his pen (typewriter, actually) more than his paintbrush, he nonetheless managed to capture himself repeatedly, if not accurately, in both: he painted with words, as much as he wrote with colors. To study any one textual autobiographeme in isolation, then, is to see but one tile in the mosaic of who Williams was or thought he was.

19Like memoirs, private letters are traditionally catalogued as nonfiction and, as such, have also been seen as textual self-portraits of its author. However, in her article “Farewell to the Self: Between the Letter and the Self-Portrait,” Marie Tamboukou studies the “interfaces between self-portraits and letters” and warns that the “former cannot be simply used as illustrations of biographical details or theoretical arguments, while the latter cannot be reduced to captions or subtitles for paintings” (77). She argues for “more interdisciplinary discussions between narrative analyses, visual studies, art histories and biographical research (77). In other words, when mining memoirs, letters or self-portraits for autobiographical details, the scholar should be on his or her guard not to accept details at face value. Ludmilla Jordanova agrees, stating that the study of self-portraiture, textual or graphic, risks spiraling off into hagiography if left unchecked. But, she adds, these self-portraits should not be dismissed entirely when the goal is to study them intermedially, in short, using one to comment upon, and even complement, the other: “. . . studying selfportraits alongside epistolary texts is a move beyond the limits of narratives: the self-portrait as a graphic image destabilises rather than complements narrative analysis and forces us to think differently about subjects and psychosocial relations” (82).

20In the case of Williams’s letters, as with his memoirs, fiction and autobiography do frequently blend, which necessitates even further cross-referencing with other examples of his “nonfictional” writing – his essays and even private journals – though each contains its own issues about rendering the truth versus capturing the fact, as noted above. As Albert Devlin asserts in his introduction to Conversations with Tennessee Williams, Williams loved to perpetuate the myth of himself, so as a rule his words were “not attended with academic pomp or even with Williams’s own peculiar brand of precision” and are filled with “contradictions, self-promotion, and more than a little misleading information” (xii, viii). Read any of the early letters that Williams wrote on or about the same day to his mother Edwina and those to his gay coterie, including Donald Windham, and it becomes singularly clear that the news and the events he reported were not only tailored to meet the expectations of a specific audience but exaggerated to color the existing myths that were separating Tennessee from Tom.

21In letters from August 1940 written to his mother Edwina, for example, Williams’s textual self-portrait is that of the dutiful, penny-pinching playwright son, constantly looking for work, here “dish-washing,” to finance his writing (Selected Letters I 260-61); when in actuality he was hocking nearly everything he owned, including several typewriters (some of which were loaned to him by friends), just to pay rent or secure his next meal; and when he could not pay his debts, he simply skipped town, as he did during his first visit to New Orleans in the winter of 1939. To Windham around the time of this letter to Edwina, Williams is “Froufrou,” attending drag balls in Provincetown that same August: “The belles are jingling gaily all over town and I am still in love. . . . They had a ‘drag’ at the ‘White Whale’ night club last night. Most of the boys went as girls but Froufrou [Williams] thought it would be more of a masquerade if she went as a man, so she did” (Letters to Donald Windham, 11-12). No doubt, like anything Williamsian concerning his biography, truth, or as much as could be gleaned from it, lies somewhere in that no-man’s land between Tom and Tenn, between apocrypha and realia.

22Williams’s early letters, then, are themselves autoportraits in typewriter ink (or pencil lead) insofar as they contain multiple self-representations (textual and graphic) that meet the intended requirements of his varied audiences: they fashion and refashion his image on the page, just as he was doing in oil on canvas, as we will soon see. When read alongside the entries in his private notebooks written on or around the same day, these letters further evince how Williams’s mode of self-representation changed even when he became the audience of one. In the notebook entries written around the same time as the two letters cited above, for example, Williams expounds at length about his genuine love for the young, draft-dodging Canadian dancer named Kip Kiernan.

23His relationship with Kip quickly became intense, and for a while Williams was the happiest he had ever been. Actively writing during the day, Williams turned his attention to Kiernan at night, and together they frequented Provincetown’s gay bars. But when the relationship soured, his mood changed, and with it his self-perception:

15 August 1940: You whoever you are – who takes care of those beyond caring for themselves – please make some little charitable provision for the next few days of Tennessee. So long.
19 August 1940: . . . A drunk wobbled up to me and caught my arm and called me “darling.” Strangers still look at me with sexual interest in spite of the fact that I begin to feel old and jaded. (Notebooks 205, 207; cf. Notebooks 215)

24Williams’s typical response to pain, real or imagined, was to flee it, and he did, taking his first of several trips to Mexico to lick his bruised ego, something he later recalls in his Memoirs: “I was in a state of shock. Kip observed a law of silence and of troubled remoteness. I determined upon a course of action, flight to Mexico” (Memoirs 56).

25Any study of Williams’s textual self-portraits at this time, then, is actually a study of selves-portraits, which, Jens Brockmeier argues, contain an amalgam of “pictures and words, imagery and narrativity [that] are interwoven in one and the same semiotic fabric of meaning” (255). And if anyone was aware of this semiotic amalgam, it was surely Williams himself. On Easter Sunday, 9 April 1939, he confided in his journal:

My next play will be simple, direct and terrible – a picture of my own heart – there will be no artifice in it – I will speak the truth as I see it – distort as I see distortion – be wild as I am wild – tender as I am tender – mad as I am mad – passionate as I am passionate – It will be myself without concealment or evasion and with a fearless unashamed frontal assault upon life that will leave no room for trepidation – (Notebooks 147)

26In declaring his intentions to reproduce the “picture” of his heart, Leverich writes, Williams had “written a manifesto for all the plays and stories to follow” (301).

2. Tennessee Williams’s first graphic self-portrait: objectifying the subject, subjectifying the object

27Had Williams applied this same manifesto to graphic self-representations at this time, we would have had several visual self-portraits of the playwright as a confident and tormented young man, and each would be as different from the other, just as the textual Williamses are in his letters and journal entries. Lucky for us, he did. As he writes his mother on 16 March 1939: “I’m getting free art lessons here – Mr. Parrott’s wife is a WPA art instructor – I’ve made 3 oil paintings of scenes out here which are really good – she says I have a remarkable talent so maybe I’ll come back East in a berêt [sic]” (Selected Letters I 156). These early graphic self-portraits, like his letters and the journal entries, offer up multiple constrastive (and contractive) readings of the birth of “Tennessee” Williams.

28In The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History, James Hall upends the traditional methods of studying graphic self-portraits by looking at them from the inside outward – that is, from the painting’s perspective that sees and speaks to the painter and the viewer simultaneously. As Hall suggests,

One of the wonders of self-portraits is their capacity to induce unique levels of uncertainty in the viewer. Is the artist looking at us with a view to portraying or judging us? Is the artist looking at a mirror, with a view to portraying or judging themselves? Is the artist creating a persona to serve specific ends? Or have they delved into the book of memory, myth and imagination to create a work personal in its meaning? (9)

29Following Hall’s sociological imperative here in “drawing on ideas and anecdotes from the artists’ [and the viewers’] own times …. [r]ather than over-emphasizing the artist’s pursuit of an accurate likeness” – a structuralist method not unlike Barthes’s per reading textual autobiographemes – we can study Williams’s self-portraits by looking at the “many competing motivations for making and shaping a self-portrait” (Hall 7) and their effect on the viewer, including the older Williams himself. Hall adds that “the self-portrait – more so than a portrait – is primarily a product of memory and imagination” (11), but in accessing that memory and imagination, Tamboukou posits, interdisciplinary “processes of recontextualisation” of the self-portrait’s execution are essential:

Interpreting the self-portrait thus requires much more than a juxtaposition of narratives, visual images and titles in exhibition catalogues; it calls for close attention to the historical, social and cultural contexts that condition the emergence of the work of art under consideration. (78)

30In short, viewers must “read” Williams’s graphic self-portraits just as they would “look at” his textual ones: collectively alongside its paratexts, and with a discerning eye toward autobiographic representation :​2017/​03/​self-portraits-tennessee-williams-part-two/​

31The first of these graphic self-portraits was painted in the spring or early summer of 1939. The most striking feature about this, or any of Williams’s self-portraits, is its simplicity, both in execution and in composition. Williams painted quickly, completing it within a couple of hours or so. In limiting his subject to the head and shoulders, he avoided confronting the technical skills needed to capture more complex features, such as the hand. Moreover, the painting lacks a backdrop or mise en scène that could help in its analysis or appreciation, as the backdrops in the self-portraits of Rembrandt, Van Gogh or even Picasso often do. The canvas is stark, with the painter’s attention focused essentially on the subject’s eyes, which first draws the viewer’s attention. One might conclude rather hastily that this autoportrait lacks the “might of design” or “the mystery of color” that Williams celebrated in his work:

My own creed as a playwright is fairly close to that expressed by the painter in Shaw’s play The Doctor’s Dilemma: “I believe in … the might of design, the mystery of color, the redemption of all things by beauty everlasting and the message of art that has made these hands blessed. Amen.” (New Selected Essays 71)

32If indeed, as he adds, “the message lies in those abstract beauties of form and color and line, to which I would add light and motion” (New Selected Essays 71), art historians and critics could quickly assess that little or any of this creed is captured here.

33Though lacking any attempt at impasto, Williams’s brushstrokes are nonetheless broad and sweeping, drawing more from the brush’s belly than its toe, a technique he would use repeatedly in his paintings. He probably used filbert, more so than round or flat brushes here, evidenced in the wispy look achieved both in the subject’s hair and in the blue background. It is fairly certain that he never used a mahlstick. Significantly, Williams does make use of all the colors on his palette, despite the painting’s initial bichromatic appearance. While the flesh tone captures the face, neck and shoulders, making the subject to appear nude from the chest up, the azure of the artist’s eyes is what is predominant here, thanks in a large part to the background of the same color, which both accentuates the eyes and, simultaneously, gives form to the head.

34Like many of Williams’s self-portraits, and even portraits, this painting borders on the two-dimensional with few highlights marking depth or perspective. He frequently used colors instead of chiaroscuro to establish depth and dimension – in near direct opposition to his theatrical tableaux. The color, then, also works to provide form and line. The complementary blue hue and beige tint, reminiscent of the cool sea and the warm and that Williams saw daily when this painting was executed, carry the majority of its meaning. As Lyle Leverich notes, the color blue, “the color of distance and memory, with its many emotional shades,” was Williams’s “favorite color” (310). Blue is also equated with salvation, and Williams was no doubt feeling that sense of self-peace with the Group Theatre’s letter announcing his award.

35Williams uses various shades of flesh tones, with accents of red and burnt umber for shading, to add dimension to the face and neck. Tertiary colors like mauve and violet are used to give shape to the lips and the straight, Greek nose, and to define the nostrils. The same mauve is used to highlight the eyes, with a touch of red. Three different tints and tones of blue, from light to steel grey, define the pupil and the iris, with white for the scleras completing the eyeball. Brown marks the signature pointed eyebrows as well as the suggested eyelashes on the top and bottom of the eye. The hair is a mixture of three colors: a light and dark brown paint, as well as the beige of the unpainted paperboard. Williams uses the dark brown to draw out a few descending locks on the forehead. Further colors are used here, but mostly for light shading on the left side of the head, and the few touches of yellow on the ears, jaw line and neck do provide some depth to the figure.

36Since Williams was probably looking into a mirror when he painted this (as opposed to a picture of himself), the shading suggests light was coming from his right. Apart from that, the painting has no discernible depth. Because Williams’s self-portraits are always mirror-length headshots – here, a frontal view, which in self-portraiture, as Francis O’Connor suggests, indicates an artist’s period of transition or life crisis that elicit egocentric feelings or attitudes, which Williams certainly was experiencing in 1939 (182) – we lack a telltale pose or clothing or other situational details to help analyze them. But the positioning of the head, and the directness of the gaze that results from it, supplies much of the needed detail in which to analyze the painting.

37Williams no doubt painted this objectifying self-portrait for himself, but he also knew that others would see it as well, including his family to whom Williams had written that he would mail the painting by the summer’s end (Selected Letters I 184, 191). As such, the gaze, accompanied by a wry, enigmatic smile, is intended as much for the older Williams (whose comment upon it at a later date appears in the lower left-hand corner of the painting) as if for these potential viewers. The gaze is direct, arrogant even, and without reticence. Given his recent letter from the Group Theatre, Williams is a little more than self-confident here. Perhaps he is trying to reassure his worrying mother of his good fortune and bright future: perhaps he is just sneering at his ever-doubtful father of that same success. Or perhaps he is just relishing in his own accomplishments. To be sure, he wants the viewer to focus first on his gaze, evinced by the manner in which he emphasizes the blue of the eyes in the expansive blue of the background. Writing of Williams’s general tendency to draw his viewers’ gaze, John Timpane speculates “on what the Williams gaze encompasses”: “In Williams, the pleasure of the gaze is masochistic pleasure, and whatever the gaze rests on always includes a gaze at the audience. With Williams, the problem is indeed to catch the glimpse” (752).

38The gaze, as opposed to the point of view, is intended to captivate the other, to instill desire. Here, that desire could be narcissistic (as Williams seems to suggest in his metacommentary) or controlling, manipulative. The seeming “sneer of cold command,” from Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” that accompanies the gaze suggests the former more than the latter. Timpane “sense[s] loss along with desire” in “the Williams gaze” (756), which translates into “a little existentialism, a little transcendental individualism, and equal parts pleasure and resignation” (757). Although Timpane is talking about the theatre viewer’s experience sitting through one of Williams’s plays, the same could aptly apply to walking through a Williams art exhibition. Desire and loss are both imprinted in Williams’s gaze here, though that loss becomes more evident in the other self-portraits Williams paints later that same summer.

  • 6 Notice that the head is seemingly attached to a torso, although an argument can be made that the fl (...)

39In addition to the importance of the gaze is the signature at the bottom. Williams autographed this painting with his truncated signature “T.W.,” making the “W” more out of conjoined Vs than a W and his “T” out of two straight lines, different from the curved “T” of his handwritten signature. It is significant that Williams signed the self-portrait with his initials and not his full name. Given the identity struggle that he was experiencing in 1939, the “T” stood as much for “Tom” as it did “Tennessee.” In his writing and bohemian lifestyle at this time, he was clearly “Tennessee,” but it is entirely feasible that in this painting he was still “Tom.” Various biographical details gleaned from his letters and notebooks discussed earlier attest to a Williams growing confident during the Spring of 1939, but whose dour attitude soon changed by summer, when his friend Jim Parrott (with whom he was living since leaving New Orleans the previous February) left him. Or perhaps T.W. here was meant to be a little of both, the libertine finally freed from the Puritan prison that was his mother Edwina’s home in St. Louis, but also the reverent son and grandson, who idolized his religiously devout grandparents. Given this, the bold, red letters placed just above his left breast create the effect of an open wound or a scar not yet healed, closely resembling Hawthorne’s emboldened scarlet letter both in image and in sense, though it is unclear whether they are worn proudly and defiantly, like Hester Prynne, or borne shamefully, literally “imprinted in the flesh” like Reverend Dimmesdale.6

40Signed self-portraits were the norm by 1939, but Williams’s initials are so large that they appear to be less a signature and more a title. On this, Pascal Bonafoux writes: “The title of the picture becomes the legend of its photographic reproduction. Titles are intended for works of art, legends for photographs …” (7). If the painter’s signature is a passageway into a world outside the picture, a painting’s title, even abstract, firmly grounds its contents inside the frame. As such, the dominant subject of this painting may be Williams’s likeness, but the dual signature/title becomes the hidden-in-plain sight self-portrait of the real Williams.

41Ironically, what is perhaps most intriguing about this painting is not its signatory initials that double as a title, nor even the way Williams captured his image on canvas in 1939, but rather how Williams judged that image, and its rendering, several years later. For located at the bottom left of the portrait are a few words that Williams later added in pen: “Very flattering, even then! Tennessee,” a tongue-in-cheek self-mockery typical of Williams per his many autoportraits, graphic and textual alike. To be sure, the words create both an ironic and temporal gap between the viewer and the subject represented, since the adverb “then” suggests a moment much later in time when Williams first revisits the painting. How long that gap in time was remains conjecture, but it was likely not as brief a lag as we find between Williams’s notebook entries and their sarcastic marginalia penned this same summer of 1939. In moments of boredom or desolation, which he often felt when Parrott periodically left him, Williams would reread what he had written earlier in his notebook and add these humorous or ironic metacomments above or below certain passages. The result is genuine self-reflection, which allowed him to take stock of his mercurial nature.

42For example, on 14 January 1939, just after his arrival in the French Quarter, Williams wrote this about himself:

P.S. When I read through this book I’m appalled at myself – what a fool I am! – Quelles sottises! – Comment je suis bête! Parbleu!!! – It is valuable as a record of the one man’s incredible idiocy! – who is reputed to be at least partially sane – or is – most of the time an abominable dullness – what is there in me that remains clean? Yes, there is something in me like that – something that remains apart & keeps the record – “engraves the reckoning” – when that dies I will be finally & completely dead. Or is that an illusion? Am I all animal, all willful, blind stupid beast? Is there another part that is not an accomplice in this mad pilgrimage of the flesh – ? (Notebooks 133, all sic)

43At the top of this page in his notebook appears the following metacomment in Williams’s holograph (its date is unknown, but it was probably written in August 1939, like the several other handwritten metacomments added around this time): “I haven’t always been so pleased with myself” (Notebooks 133). What is noteworthy here is that this holograph metacommentary was written a few months, and not years, after the initial notebook entry and postscript. The metacommentary in the painting, then, produces a palimpsest of sorts, with the older Williams commenting not just on the younger Williams’s looks but also on how that younger man saw himself and the skill, or lack of it, in which he rendered it in oil. The effect provides various layers to the painting, and not just the physical ink on oil, but also the metaphysical self on other.

44While Williams’s self-deprecating gallows humor here seems, at first, to be a perfect example of Hall’s “mock-heroic self-portraits,” it should also be noted that Williams no doubt intended to capture his physical features accurately at the time of this painting’s composition in 1939. As such, the posterior metacommentary might demonstrate Williams’s failure to assess his self-portrait alongside those traditionally rendered from studying one’s reflection in a mirror, as Hall describes:

In all these meditations on mirrors, it is as though viewers see their moral selves reflected back and can thus mentally do a “spot-the-difference” competition between themselves and, say, the Virgin. Looking into these mirrors is little different from reading a bespoke moralizing text. . . . It is about recognizing virtues and vices far more than physical attributes. (35)

45Williams seems to be focusing on the painting’s inaccurate, albeit flattering, representation of his “good” looks, and not on the “virtues” or “vices” that those looks are meant to represent. Perhaps that was the reason for the ambiguous “T.W.” Williams no doubt assumed that others would see this painting, so he is likely attempting with his subjectifying metacommentary to preempt any lasting charges of vanity made against him in painting a likeness that is better looking on canvas than in real life. Apart from authenticating the painting’s provenance – in effect, autographing his earlier initials – these words provide a rich paratext that speaks about both the subject of the picture, and the process in which that subject was represented.

46What this graphic self-portrait reveals, then, might be not so much the face of the 28-year-old Williams as the multiplicity of the artist’s many faces. These faces changed with time, of course, materializing through the superimposition of the painting’s two signatures. The writer’s words, the painter’s initials and, finally, the face of Williams as a young man refer to a presence, and a present, that keeps eluding the mesh of representation. What Williams tried to capture through language and image in this self-portrait is the ever-changing identity of the artist who is put center stage through a mise en abyme that gives depth to the mirror of representation. In this mirror, Williams’s face happens to be no more than a distant, elusive reflection. The painter partly erased the pencil lines in a deliberate attempt to remove the palimpsestic contours of his drawing and leave the contrast of the colors to add definition and perspective. As such, the self-appraisal – less of his talent as an artist and more a criticism of how he saw himself in the mirror – provides an interesting gloss on this first extant graphic self-portrait of Tennessee Williams.

3. Conclusion

47In A Face to the World: On Self-portraits, Laura Cumming writes that self-portraits differ essentially from portraits because the latter captures an external truth, whereas the former attempts to capture “the sense of inner mutability, of a personality altered daily by experience, never fixed, ever changing.” Self-portraits, she adds, “specialize in other kinds of truths”:

We clearly do not consult self-portraits for documentary evidence. But no matter how fanciful, flattering or deceitful the image, it will always reveal something deep and incontrovertible (and distinct from a portrait) – namely this special class of truth, this pressure from within that determines what appears as art without, that leaves its traces in every self-portrait. (4)

48This truth, sometimes an outright lie, nonetheless is “how the artist hoped to be seen and known, how he wished to represent (and see) himself” (4-5). Consequently, viewers often misinterpret the painting’s subject, looking for clues about the artist’s life and thoughts, whereas “[s]elf-portraiture is an opportunity to put across one’s side of the story and it has been exploited at times as a love letter, mission statement or suicide note by other means” (Cummings 7). In sum, the face staring back at the artist in the mirror, and thus reproduced on the canvas, is not always recognizable to the viewer as the self-portrait of that same artist, whether intentional or not. The subject is not the Self as Self or even as Other, but the Other as Self (first) as it is represented to the artist and (second) to the viewer. A self-portrait, then, is the inevitable “fusion of person with picture” or, I would add, “persona.”

49Williams’s first graphic self-portrait is precisely that, almost to the extent that, years later, Williams could barely even recognize himself in it. The painting, like his textual self-portraits, is significant on various levels, providing another nuance to the many auto/biographical readings of his life and work. First, as a graphic record, it intermedially documents the painter’s evolving aesthetics, visions and influences, much in the same way that reading the stage directions of his early one-acts help chart Williams’s growth as a graphic playwright over the years. Second, as intramedial autobiography, the graphic self-portrait both reveals and obscures for the observer certain truths about Williams himself, just as his nonfiction writing (memoirs, letters, essays and notebooks) does for its varied intended readers. Lastly, as intercultural art object, it attempts to capture Williams’s honest perception of himself physically and metaphysically in 1939, while later mirroring his mental state and dramaturgic vision, since the canvas and the page/stage were often one and the same for Williams.

50I offer up these three critical perspectives – his self-portraits as intermedial, intramedial and intercultural moments of artistic and dramatic development in Williams’s life and career – that combine to a great extent the formalist, psychological and sociocultural theories traditionally applied in art criticism to form a fourth critical method, autoportraiture, whose goal is to analyze synchronically and diachronically an artist’s textual and graphic self-portraits. Studying Williams’s other autoportraits – or those of any self-portrait obsessed writer–painter for that matter, which this article wishes to promote – is assessing his various motivations behind the paintings and sketches, as well as the later memoirs and autofiction that he wrote, and discerning the message he was sending through them to his viewers and readers and, ultimately, to himself. Given the web-like nature of Williams’s graphic and textual self-portraiture, the methods themselves intertwine, adding multiple layers of interpretation to our discussion of a given self-portrait. Addressing each of these methodologies per Williams’s early autoportrait, then, helps mark the beginnings of Tennessee Williams the poet–playwright.

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Primary Sources

Williams, Tennessee. Collected Stories. New York: New Directions, 1989.

___. Conversations with Tennessee Williams. Ed. Albert J. Devlin. Jackson: U of Mississippi Press, 1986.

___. Memoirs. 1975. New York: New Directions, 2006.

___. New Selected Essays: Where I Live. Ed. John S. Bak. New York: New Directions, 2009.

___. Notebooks. Ed. Margaret Bradham Thornton. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 2006.

___. The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams. Volume One: 1920-1945. Eds. Albert J. Devlin and Nancy M. Tischler. New York: New Directions, 2000.

___. The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams. Volume II: 1945-1957. Eds. Albert J. Devlin and Nancy M. Tischler. New York: New Directions, 2004.

___. [Self Portrait]. Series I. Works by Tennessee Williams, 1928-1947, 1981, undated. Box 1, folder 2. Accession Number: 65.399.2. Tennessee Williams Art Collection, HRC, University of Texas, 1939.

___. Tennessee Williams’ Letters to Donald Windham, 1940-1965. Ed. Donald Windham. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976, 1977.

___. “Twenty Years of It.” Fragment of an essay [c. 1960]. MS Thr 397 (780). Tennessee Williams Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University, n.d.

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Bak, John S. “‘Forgive the digression’: Tennessee Williams’s Essay in the Non-Fiction Genre.” Coup de Théâtre 24 (April 2010): 107-24.

___. “Researching Microbiography in Tennessee Williams’s Artwork,” Ransom Center Magazine 42.1 (Spring 2021). Web. 22 Feb. 2023.

___. “Self-Portraits of the Playwright as a Young, Middle-Aged, and Aging Man.” OUPblog: Oxford University Press’s Academic Insights for the Thinking World. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. Web. 22 Feb. 2023.

___. Tennessee Williams: A Literary Life. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

___. “‘White Paper’ and ‘Cahiers Noirs’: Williams’s many ur-Memoirs.” Études Anglaises 64.1 (Jan.–March 2011): 7-20.

Barthes, Roland. Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes. 1975. Trans. Richard Howard. Berkeley: U of California P, 1977.

—. Sade, Fourier, Loyola. 1971. Trans. Richard Miller. Berkeley: U of California P, 1976.

Beaujour, Michel. Miroirs d’encre. Rhétorique de l’autoportrait. Paris : Éditions du Seuil, 1980.

Bonafoux, Pascal. Portraits of the Artist: The Self-Portrait in Painting. New York: Skira Rizzoli, 1985.

Brockmeier, Jens. “From the End to the Beginning: Retrospective Teleology in Autobiography.” Narrative and Identity Studies in Autobiography, Self and Culture. Ed. Jens Brockmeier and Donal Carbaugh. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing, 2001, pp. 247-80.

Crozier, W. Ray and Paul Greenhalgh. “Self-Portraits as Presentations of Self.” Leonardo 21.1 (1988): 29-33.

Cumming, Laura. A Face to the World: On Self-portraits. New York: HarperPress, 2009.

Debusscher, Gilbert, “The Gnädiges Fräulein: Williams’s Self-Portrait among the Ruins.” New Essays on American Drama. Eds. Henry I. Schvey and Marc Maufort. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1989, pp. 63-74.

Devlin, Albert J. Introduction. Conversations with Tennessee Williams. Ed. Albert J. Devlin. Jackson: U of Mississippi Press, 1986, pp. vii-xiii.

Gabara, Rachel. From Split to Screened Selves: French and Francophone Autobiography in the Third Person. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2006.

Hall, James. The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History. London: Thames & Hudson, 2016.

Hallowell, Alfred Irving. Culture and Experience. Philadelphia: Philadelphia UP, 1955.

Jordanova, Ludmilla. “The Body of the Artist.” Self Portrait: Renaissance to Contemporary. Eds. Anthony Bond, Joanna Woodall, Timothy J. Clark, L. J. Jordanova, and Joseph Leo Koerner. London: National Portrait Gallery, 2005, pp. 43-55.

Lejeune, Philippe. Je est un autre. L’autobiographie de la littérature aux médias. Paris : Éditions du Seuil, 1980.

___. Le pacte autobiographique. Paris : Éditions du Seuil, 1975.

___. Moi aussi. Paris : Éditions du Seuil, 1986.

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Maruéjouls-Koch, Sophie. “Absorbing Images: Tennessee Williams’s ‘Plastic Theatre’ and European Painting.” Tennessee Williams Annual Review 13 (2012): 33-56.

___. “Tennessee Williams and Jackson Pollock: The Art of Crossing the Line.” The Tennessee Williams Annual Review 14 (2014): 23-49.

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Ruckel, Terri Smith. “Ut Pictura Poesis, Ut Poesis Pictura: The Painterly Texture of Tennessee Williams’s In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel.” The Undiscovered Country: The Later Plays of Tennessee Williams. Ed. Philip C. Kolin. New York: Peter Lang, 2002, pp. 80–92.

Saunders, Max. Self Impression: Life-Writing, Autobiografiction, and the Forms of Modern Literature. New York: OUP, 2010.

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Vidal, Gore. Introduction. Collected Stories by Tennessee Williams. New York: New Directions, 1989, pp. xix-xxv.

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1 Plumley is one of the first critics to write about Williams’s paintings. For other criticism on Williams’s painting, see Bak, “Researching Microbiography” and “Self-Portraits”; Maruéjouls-Koch, “Absorbing Images” and “Tennessee Williams and Jackson Pollock”; and Ruckel, “Ut Pictura Poesis, Ut Poesis Pictura.”

2 As W. Ray Crozier and Paul Greenhalgh point out, “There have been historical changes both in the motives for producing self-portraits and . . . in the attitudes towards the self” (30). The reasons why Williams painted himself in 1939 are not identical to those reasons behind his self-portraits from the 1970s. A. Irving Hallowell agrees, arguing that “[t]he individual’s self-image and his interpretation of his own experience cannot be divorced from the concept of self that is characteristic of his society” (76). Obviously, the America of 1939 was not the America of 1978, nor was Williams the same in both epochs.

3 See also Lejeune, Je est un autre. L’autobiographie de la littérature aux médias and Le Pacte autobiographique.

4 Original quote: “la formule opératoire de l’autoportrait est : ‘Je ne vous raconterai pas ce que j’ai fait mais je vais vous dire qui je suis.’”

5 For studies that open up that metabiographical approach to Williams’s nonfiction in general, see Bak, “‘White Paper’ and ‘Cahiers Noirs’: Williams’s many ur-Memoirs” and “‘Forgive the digression’: Tennessee Williams’s Essay in the Non-Fiction Genre”; and Shackelford, “The Transmutations of Experience: The Aesthetics and Themes of Tennessee Williams’s Nonfiction.” For a more general approach on the biofiction crossover in memoirs, see Saunders, Self Impression: Life-Writing, Autobiografiction, and the Forms of Modern Literature; and Smelstor, “A Hall of Mirrors: Modern Autobiography and the Process of Creating the Self.”

6 Notice that the head is seemingly attached to a torso, although an argument can be made that the flesh of the chest is actually just the unpainted paperboard, making this a detached head in the Veronica tradition.

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John S. BAK, « T.W. - Self-Portraits of the Playwright: Tennessee Williams’s Paintings, Poetics, Prose »E-rea [En ligne], 20.2 | 2023, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2023, consulté le 01 octobre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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John S. BAK

Université de Lorraine/I.D.E.A.
John S. Bak, Professor at the Université de Lorraine in France, holds degrees from the universities of Illinois, Ball State and the Sorbonne. A former Fulbright scholar to the Czech Republic in 1995, he has been Visiting Fellow at Harvard (2011), Columbia (2013), Texas (2014), and Oxford (2014-16). His books include Tennessee Williams and Europe (2014), Tennessee Williams: A Literary Life (2013), New Selected Essays: Where I Live (2009), and Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, and Queer Masculinities (2009).
John S. Bak, Professeur à l’Université de Lorraine in France, est diplômé des universités d’Illinois, de Ball State et de la Sorbonne. Ancien Fulbrighter à la République tchèque en 1995, il a été Visiting Fellow à Harvard (2011), à Columbia (2013), au Texas (2014), et à Oxford (2014-16). Ses ouvrages incluent Tennessee Williams and Europe (2014), Tennessee Williams: A Literary Life (2013), New Selected Essays: Where I Live (2009), et Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, and Queer Masculinities (2009).

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