It was the summer of 1953, and Flannery O’Connor had been painting.
“I am taking painting again,” she wrote at the time to friends Robert and Sally Fitzgerald, “but none of my paintings go over very big in this house.”
O’Connor, who was 28 years old that summer, lived in her childhood home with her mother Regina in Milledgeville, Georgia. She was already known among literary circles for her stunning and grotesque short stories, and had established herself as an up-and-coming fiction writer of national significance with the publication of her first novel, Wise Blood in 1952.
But around this time, poor health forced O’Connor to return home to Milledgeville. In 1951, she was diagnosed with lupus erythematosus, the disease that had killed her father when she was 15 years old. Traveling became difficult for O’Connor, and she remained at home, for the most part, until she died of complications from the disease in 1964.
By the time O’Connor painted her self-portrait in 1953, lupus had already begun to take a vicious toll on her body, often leaving her swollen and in pain, and later, crippled. Critics debate the influence of O’Connor’s condition on her fiction, specifically with regards to the physical bodies of her characters, which are often deformed and distorted, if not blind or missing a limb. Physical violence and bodily discomfort permeate her written work.
In terms of O’Connor’s visual work, while subjects were easy to come by, so, too, were critics: “I painted me a self-portrait with a pheasant cock that is really a cutter [strong likeness],” she wrote to the Fitzgeralds. “But Regina keeps saying, I think you would look so much better if you had on a tie.”
Her mother’s criticism notwithstanding, over the decade that followed, O’Connor went on to mention this self-portrait in letters to friends, enclose copies of it to pen pals she had never met, and beg publishers to include it on book jackets. According to O’Connor’s wry reports, it was not well-received — Harper’s Bazaar called it “a little stiff” and Harcourt, Brace, “a little odd.”
What could explain O’Connor’s fixation on the painting?
This was far from O’Connor’s first foray into visual art, which she considered a hobby rather than a vocation. She had dabbled in printing cartoons from linoleum cuts in high school and college, where the respective school newspapers published her regular contributions. (The New Yorker, however, repeatedly rejected her submissions.) She had an unorthodox and aggressive methodology: “I have been painting with a palette knife because I don’t like to wash the brushes,” she wrote in 1953.
Still, strangely, O’Connor continued to champion the portrait despite admitting that that she, too, found it unflattering. But the effect was most likely intentional: O’Connor chose to depict herself at a moment (summer 1953) when she was suffering from an acute episode of lupus. Looking back on the circumstances under which she painted the self-portrait, O’Connor wrote to Elizabeth Lowell in 1963:
I hate like sin to have my picture taken and most of them don’t look much like me, or maybe they look like I’ll look after I’ve been dead a couple of days…The self-portrait was made ten years ago, after a very acute siege of lupus. I was taking cortisone which gives you what they call a moon-face and my hair had fallen out to a large extent from the high fever, so I looked pretty much like the portrait. When I painted it I didn’t look either at myself in the mirror or at the bird. I knew what we both looked like.
O’Connor must have clung to the painting, then, because she felt it captured her essence in such a way that no photograph ever could. She wrote that the portrait represents “not exactly the way I look but it’s the way I feel.”
(The portrait also happens to capture one of her more eccentric passions, raising birds — she raised over 100 peafowl at her home in Milledgeville.)
It seems that for O’Connor, this essence — her self-image, the way she feels — was irrevocably bound up with the physical effects of lupus on her appearance, regardless of whether she was afflicted with symptoms at a given time. Put differently, O’Connor could only recognize herself in a disease-ravaged body. This is what O’Connor means when she says that she did not need to look at her reflection to paint the self-portrait — she knew “what she looked like” because she knew what she felt like.
To be Flannery O’Connor in 1953 was to have lupus.
But for O’Connor, was disease — or physical evidence of its damage — a prerequisite for literary greatness? Had she come to conflate this sickly appearance with her identity as a writer, and as a human being? Was this an extension of her Catholic faith, an exaltation of — and perhaps, identification with — Christ’s bodily suffering? Or was it instead that she saw the presence of her symptoms as a sort of inverse-Samsonian metaphor for strength — what sustenance lupus drained from her body was then available to nourish her writing? For all her epistolary correspondence, O’Connor grants us little insight into the connection she drew between her appearance and the quality of her work.
In January 1954, she was feeling better. So much so, in fact, that she worried about losing her identity. She wrote the following to friends Elizabeth and Robert Lowell, in reference to a previous exchange:
I didn’t mean I was fat when I said I was disgustingly healthy. I’m not fat yet but I don’t have any room to grow. I just don’t look very intelligent. I was in Nashville a couple of weeks ago visiting the Cheneys and met a man who looked at me a while and said, ‘That [Wise Blood] was a profound book. You don’t look like you wrote it.’ I mustered up my squintiest expression and snarled, ‘Well I did,’ but at the same time I had to recognize he was right.
If we’re to believe (or psychoanalyze?) O’Connor, then the true creative force behind Wise Blood was not the living, breathing Flannery herself, but rather the idea of her at her illest.
It was the young woman in her self-portrait.