Self-portrait at 70

Willing, Victor

Primary Category: Visual Arts / Painting/Drawing

Genre: Oil on canvas

Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey
  • Date of entry: Feb-04-2000
  • Last revised: Apr-26-2012


Large blue circular eyes stare up from this frontal self-portrait. The sclera is visible underneath the eyes, which reflect the same washed blue of the background. This blue is as startling as, and reminiscent of, the green background of a Van Gogh self-portrait. The visage is grimly determined and the mouth a thin-lipped line. Ears are large and the shoulders blend into the background. He is thin and somewhat haggard.


This haunting self-portrait is made even more so when the viewer realizes that although the painting is titled with the artist at age 70, he did not live that long. Willing was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1984 and died four years later at age sixty. This is one of his last pieces. Painting was physically difficult for Willing by this time, and his style of painting shifted from larger odd objects in surreal settings, to smaller, intense portraits.

The commentary accompanying the painting at the Tate Gallery in London includes this quote from the artist: "beneath even the desire to change society and the need to communicate is a need, urgent in some of us, to affirm our scratches that 'I exist.'" The quote is relevant on multiple levels to this work.

Visually, the use of the exact same shade of blue for the eyes and the background, and the dissolution of the shoulders into the background, make a statement about individuality and worth. Also, the artist continued to struggle to create throughout his illness, while explicitly recognizing the transient nature of life by setting his portrait in a time frame beyond his life span.


Painted 1987. The artist was married to Portuguese artist Paula Rego, whom he met at the Slade School of Art. They spent much time in Portugal as well as England. For a listing of Willing's work at the Tate Gallery, see:

Primary Source

On loan from Richard Salmon to the Tate Gallery, London.