History And Context
Like many artists, Milton Avery captured his changing moods in the self-portraits he painted throughout his long career. When Avery made this self-portrait in 1938, he was considered a masterful American painter, represented by a series of top galleries in New York, with a devoted following. In this work, Avery creates the bravado and trademark style of the bohemian artist. He stands before the viewer with a cigarette dangling from his lips, a beret propped on his head, and scarf around his neck. Instead of confronting the viewer directly, he looks away, his eyes downcast. His face appears highlighted from the right side, carving distinct features, and creating a strong shadow on his left side. The eyes and mouth are emphasized. The dark hues used in his earlier work have been replaced by a brighter palette. He incorporates a more complex layering of colors as well as strongly outlined and flattened forms. These formal changes show Avery's interest in the European modernist who would inspire him, Henri Matisse, whose work he may have seen earlier that decade at the artist's 1931 Museum of Modem Art retrospective. With the passing oftime, Avery's later self-portraits depict an artist fragile in health and humbled by age.
In 1929, nearly ten years before Self-portrait with Red Tam and Scarf was painted, Duncan Phillips purchased the first Milton Avery work to enter a public museum. In1943, five years after the work was painted Phillips hosted the artist's first museum retrospective. Self-portrait with Red Tam and Scarf is the first self-portrait by Avery to enter the collection, adding to the strength of the museum's unit of twenty works by the artist.