This self-portrait is amongst Guérin’s most psychologically penetrating. He turns to us, full frontal, with a haunting gaze dominating his highly naturalistic face. The left side of his forehead, cheek and nose are starkly illuminated from a light source slightly behind his head to our left, with the rest of his features subtly modelled by a faint reflected light. The bright white collar of his shirt leaps out at us over the lapel of his black velvet jacket, casting a muted reflection on his jaw line. In its observation of his features, and in their detailed execution, it is a highly sympathetic portrait, at once veracious and explicit, sincere and utterly arresting.
Praised for his brilliance by both Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Théodore Géricault, Paulin Guérin is one of the more mysterious and captivating painters of the early 19th century. The son of a locksmith he began his life in poverty, painting a number of self-portraits as he could not afford models. He exhibited at the Salon for the first time in 1810, showing only portraits, while his first composition piece, Cain after the death of Abel, for which he received critical acclaim and which was purchased by the government, was exhibited in 1812 (Toulon, Musée Toulon). Guérin was the official painter to the royal family during the reigns of Louis XVIII and Charles X, and he remained loyal to the Bourbons after 1830. His early style is rooted in the 18th century tradition of Jean-Baptiste Greuze and, indeed, of some of the great English portrait painters, though he achieves in both his portraits and composition pieces a Neoclassical personality all of his own, chiefly through his idiosyncratic use of colour, light, and a very particular form of sfumato which, of course, also distinguishes the paintings of his contemporary Romantic painters Pierre-Paul Prud’hon and Anne Louis Girodet. There is something more to Guérin’s portraits though, chiefly in the combination of his extraordinary understanding of light and an intense psychological interpretation of his sitters, that seems to prefigure great portraits from the next generation such as those of Gustave Courbet, and in particular his own self-portrait of 1841, Desperate Man (private collection, France).
Based on a comparison with Guerin's 1804 dated self-portrait in the Musée de Toulon, which was painted on his twenty-first birthday, we can surmise a date of execution for the present self-portrait of circa 1815-20. Though similar in conception, with a haunting face emerging from a sombre backdrop, in this later example Guérin appears full-faced and, critically, much more prosperous and self-assured. In 1804 he had been in Paris but eighteen months, mired in poverty, near the depths of despair, and it was not until the following year that he found employment, first in the studio of Gérard and then as an apprentice to Vincent. By Napoleon's demise ten years later he was well established however, and an important member of Parisian society to boot. In 1819 he painted the portrait of the Duchesse de Berry which was a particular success, ensuring for him a long line of important society portrait commissions for years to come. The present self-portrait would appear to date to a similar moment as that of the Duchesse de Berry.
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