SAM Art: An unusual self-portrait

“He comes from the Pacific Northwest: an exceedingly tall thin figure, with large transfixed, rather alarmed eyes . . . He is shy and self aware to a degree, aloof yet (you suspect) ruthless in his self-determination. . . . In short he is very birdlike: receding, private, mobile, and migratory. . . he has the willful steely quality of a bird-its fierce capacity to survive.”

-Frederick S. Wight, Director of the Art Gallery, University of California at Los Angeles, on meeting Morris Graves, 1963

Morris Graves created this work early in his career, in the same year that he won first prize at the Seattle Art Museum’s Annual Exhibition of Northwest Artists. A very private person, the self-portrait was an unusual subject for Graves. However, in 1932 Graves joined a small group of artists that met periodically for painting sessions. The group members would each create a work in response to a shared theme, such as “still life.” Guy Anderson, another member of this group, remembers Graves painting this work as his response to the theme of “self-portrait.”

Self-portrait, 1933, Morris Graves (American, born Fox Valley, Oregon, 1910; died Loleta, California, 2001), oil on canvas, 25 1/2 x 19 3/4 in., Gift of Florence Weinstein in memory of Max Weinstein, 85.268, © Morris Graves Foundation, Photo: Paul Macapia. Currently on view in the American Modernism galleries, third floor, SAM downtown.