Lucian Freud

British Painter

Born: December 8, 1922 - Berlin, Germany
Died: July 20, 2011 - London, England
A painter must think of everything he sees as being there entirely for his own use and pleasure.

Summary of Lucian Freud

Lucian Freud, renowned for his unflinching observations of anatomy and psychology, made even the beautiful people (including Kate Moss) look ugly. One of the late twentieth-century's most celebrated portraitists, Freud painted only those closest to him: friends and family, wives and mistresses, and, last but not least, himself. His insightful series of self-portraits spanned over six decades. Unusual among artists with such long careers, his style remained remarkably consistent. Perhaps inevitably, the psychic intensity of his portraits, and his notoriously long sessions with sitters have been compared with the psychoanalytic practice of his famous grandfather, Sigmund Freud.


Progression of Art


Girl with a White Dog

Typical of Freud's early period, Girl with a White Dog was created using a sable brush, which he used to apply the paint with linear precision, almost like a drawing. The subtle shading evokes a host of textures exuding softness, warmth, and the absence of immediate tension. The robe has slipped off the sitter's shoulder, exposing her right breast. Coupled with the absent stare of the woman and the dog, the muted colors and faint contours give this composition an overall flatness.

The sitter is Kitty Garman, Freud's first wife, and a noted beauty whose father was artist Jacob Epstein. The dog was one of two bull terriers they were given as a wedding gift.

Freud painted many portraits of Kitty during their brief marriage, which ended in divorce in 1952, due to his chronic infidelities. A weariness in the sitter's expression, the deep hollows under her eyes and the self-supporting gesture of the hand under the left breast hint at her discontent, despite this moment of calm. The analytic distance that came to characterize Freud's brilliance as an observer is reinforced by the absence of a name in the title, despite his intimate connection to the subjects. He was able to see certain things better because he remained aloof.

Oil on canvas - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom


Hotel Bedroom

Settling in Paris in 1952, Freud painted many portraits, including Hotel Bedroom (1954), which features a woman lying in a bed with white sheets pulled up to her shoulders. Her left hand rests on her cheek, and her gaze is fixed on a faraway place. In sharp contrast, a standing man is standing behind her and staring at her. His dark form looms over her menacingly, silhouetted against the sunlight. Other windows in the building across the street are visible in the background.

The man is Freud himself, and the woman is Lady Caroline Hamilton Temple Blackwood, the Guinness ale heiress with whom he eloped in 1952 after the divorce from his first wife. At the time they were staying at the Hotel La Louisiane, and the work reflects the anxiety and tension in their relationship, which had already begun to unravel. She would soon leave him, and the distraught Freud, while having many more relationships, would never marry again. This painting is among the works that Freud exhibited it at the Venice Biennale when he was invited to serve as the representative of Britain in 1954, a great honor. Like this and other early portraits by the artist, the work has a flat, drawing-like quality. Here, however, the body of the artist is a black hole, threatening to suck the light out of the rest of the picture. The artist's standing pose also seems to predict a turning point in his working method. This is the last portrait he completed while sitting down. From that point on, he chose to stand while painting. One of his more narrative works, it exemplifies the autobiographical self-absorption and detachment associated with his later work.

Oil on canvas - Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Canada


Red Haired Man on a Chair

This is one of the earliest examples of Freud's mature style. Unconventional poses were one of Freud's specialties. The subject matter is conventional, but the pose is one rarely, if ever, seen in traditional Western portraiture. The subject is Tim Behrens, a friend and student at Slade School of Art, where Freud was a visiting teacher. The work's generic title, giving no hint of the specifics of the sitter or the setting, reflects the consistent, clinical detachment with which Freud approached all subjects, no matter what their relationship to him. Red Haired Man on a Chair (1962) depicts Behrens perched with his knees tucked under him, dressed in a gray suit, and with his brown shoes resting on a chair that appears to tilt toward us. The wooden post and discarded pile of cloths behind him indicate that the environment is the painting studio. At this point in his career, Freud made a transition from sable to hog-hair brushes which allowed both greater control and an ability to apply broad strokes in the heavily impastoed style one sees here.

It is clear that Freud has reached a new level of sophistication. Witness, for example, the linear tension between the figure and the post inches away, giving the appearance that if he leans a little more to the left he might actually touch it. Witness, too, the relationship between the vertical figure and the horizontal line of rags in the background, which forms a cross. Freud was not remotely religious, and certainly not Catholic, so this is a clever reference to the pose his student was holding, which was wildly uncomfortable and underscores his student's position as a martyr for the cause of great art. The observation, more sadistic than empathetic, characterizes Freud's approach to the human form, in particular his ability to suspend empathy with the sitter in order to observe him or her more closely. It is also one of the first examples of the appearance of rags strewn about in loose piles, a common compositional device in Freud's later portraits.

Oil on canvas - Private Collection


Reflection (Self-portrait)

Freud's self-portraits, an enterprise to which he returned frequently over the years, offer direct insight into his psyche. This is among the most famous, painted in 1985 when the artist was sixty-three years old. In contrast to the explicit nudity of his other portraits, here nudity is implicit (bare from the shoulders up). Whereas other sitters look ungainly and awkward, the level of self-possession in the pose here is typical of Freud's self-portraits. He squares his shoulders and looks out directly out as if to challenge the viewer. Breathtaking compositional mastery is evident in the matrix of strokes lavished on the face and the careful balance of light and shadow. Witness, for example, how the deep shadow under the chin and dark square in the upper corner seem to anchor the forms in space.

While unsparing in his inclusion of folds, wrinkles and other signs of aging, the face he describes is classically handsome, with an aquiline nose, strong jaw and expressive brows. Freud was good-looking, proud of it, and admitted that self-portraiture was the ultimate challenge. It is perhaps telling that the only individual Freud couldn't manage to make look bad was himself.

Oil on canvas - Private Collection


Man with Leg Up

This is one of Freud's many paintings of the Australian performance artist Leigh Bowery. Freud's friends introduced them, hoping that Bowery's flamboyant style, which included bright colors and sequins, would inspire Freud to abandon his usual drab palette. Being obstinate, Freud asked Bowery to shave his whole body. Freud saw Bowery's muscular legs as his best feature, and often showcases them in a series of unusually unselfconscious and passive poses that thwart the conventions of male portraiture.

In Man with Leg Up, Bowery lies on the floor with his legs splayed. One leg rests on the bed while the other bends underneath him, as if keeping him from sliding down the floor, which tilts toward us. Nearly all elements in this scene, from the supine pose to the splayed legs indicates vulnerability. Exaggerated foreshortening makes Bowery's top half appear further away, highlighting the exposure of his hairless groin, which occupies the very center of the picture. Bowery seems at ease with this. His facial features are relaxed. His left arm cradles his head while his right is draped across his chest, regarding us as if to say, "so what"?

The two men developed a friendship, and Freud continued to paint Bowery over the course of four years, until his death from AIDS in 1994.

Oil on canvas - Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC


HM Queen Elizabeth II 2000-2001

Freud painted many portraits of famous people throughout his career. The Queen is perhaps his most powerful and globally recognizable subject. While Freud normally worked large, this composition measures approximately nine and a half by six inches, making it one of his smallest paintings. Nonetheless, it depicts the British monarch as an imposing presence. The entire composition is filled by her face. A sliver of pearls adorns her throat, while atop her white hair is an elaborate, jeweled crown. The symmetrical details in the jewels and hair mark the parameters of the picture, and serve as a kind of psychic boundary for the work. The crown, an item Freud specifically requested she wear for the portrait, dominates the upper border of the picture.

After agreeing to pose for the artist, the Queen met Freud for a sitting in May of 2000. Making an exception from his usual practice of making a studio appointment, Freud traveled for sittings to St. James Palace at the Royal Collection's Friary Court, where she sat for him at the picture conservation studio. The small canvas took over six months to complete and was finally finished in December of 2001. By the time he was ready to paint the crown the Queen, who had other obligations, had run out of time. So a model had to be used. Freud, always a lightning rod for controversy, was accused of painting the Queen in an unflattering and unduly harsh light.

The project sparked debate and got mixed reviews (some saw it as a cheap publicity stunt by an artist with fading talent). Yet in his forthright observation of the Queen's features, one sees a raw intensity Freud had maintained throughout his career and refused to minimize, regardless of his subject. Among the more intriguing interpretations of this portrait, recently discussed by independent art historian Simon Abrahams, is that the Queen is a symbolic stand-in for the artist himself, a kind of alter-ego. The Queen's aging features in this portrait are remarkably similar to those of Freud himself, and the British press complained that the portrait looked nothing like her, adding credence to the theory.

Oil on canvas - The Royal Collection Trust, United Kingdom

Biography of Lucian Freud

Childhood and Education

Lucian Freud was born into an artistic middle-class Jewish family. His father Ernst was an architect, his mother Lucie Brasch studied art history, and his grandfather was the paradigm-shifting psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. In 1933, Freud and his family left Berlin to escape Hitler and settled in London.

Freud began making art - and exhibiting it - at a very early age. In 1938 one of his drawings was selected for a show of art by children at Peggy Guggenheim's London gallery. Though the artist was sixteen at the time, the drawing was from 1930, when Freud had been eight.

In his mid-teen years, Freud became a friend (and possibly had a romantic relationship) with the poet Stephen Splender. The two remained in touch for a number of years, and it is probably through this acquaintance that Freud was introduced to a circle of male (and mostly bisexual) poets, artists, and teachers that was also responsible for sustaining a group of emerging artists throughout the war years. Through these circles Freud met his greatest friend and rival Francis Bacon. More on these early years and relationship with Bacon is beautifully described in Sebastian Smee's book "The Art of Rivalry".

Early Training

Despite early talent, his unruly behavior resulted in him being forced out of multiple schools; once for dropping his pants in a public street. Serious art training began for Freud in 1939 when he enrolled in the East Anglican School of Painting and Drawing in Essex. In 1941 after a brief three months spent in the Merchant Navy, Freud finished his studies and by 1943 he had begun to paint seriously and created one of his first important paintings, The Painter's Room.

A brief period spent in Europe helped to influence Freud's work, in part when he befriended Pablo Picasso and Alberto Giacometti while in Paris in 1946. Once home in London, he joined the staff of the Slade School of Art and began exhibiting in London galleries.

Early on Freud established a lifestyle and artistic habits that he would continue throughout his career. He married the beautiful and well-connected Kitty Garman, the daughter of painter Jacob Epstein, but his infidelities quickly dissolved their marriage. Next was Guinness heiress Lady Caroline Hamilton Temple Blackwood, whom he glimpsed at her coming out party and formally met at a gathering hosted by Ann Fleming, wife of author Ian Fleming. Much to the disapproval of her parents, the relationship began while Freud was still married.

While charming, Freud had a volatile temper. He had a great intensity towards his work, which he put above all else; a factor along with his habitual infidelity that led to the failure of his many romantic relationships. In fact, there are reports of Freud being an absolutely vile misogynist: Blackwood claimed that he slept with her teenage daughter, his women are often depicted as de-humanized speciments, he is rumored to have fathered many, many children (he acknowledged fourteen), and overall treating his many sexual partners in horrible ways.

Regardless, Freud was a popular personality and drew attention to himself wherever he went with his signature accoutrement/travel companion, a pet hawk, poised on his wrist or shoulder. The few hours a day he wasn't painting he spent dining, gambling (which is often credited as one of his top self-destructive traits), and lounging in the company of the fashionable British aristocrats, socialites, and artists, including fellow painter Francis Bacon, with which he had a great deal in common. The two greatly influenced each other until a falling out ended their friendship.

Mature Period

Portraiture soon became the main subject of Freud's work. The process of sitting for a portrait by Freud was not an easy one and it often took months of multiple hour sittings for the artist to be satisfied. The great British painter David Hockney claimed to have sat for a portrait for Freud for hundreds of hours over many months, while reciprocaly, Freud sat for two afternoons (as described by critic and writer Julian Barnes.)

Despite a good relationship with his grandfather when Lucian Freud was young, and even later, sometimes choosing to wear Sigmund's coat when he was out in London, the artist attempted to avoid any further connection to the famous psychiatrist in interviews about his work, dismissing the psychoanalytic method and denying that it had any connection with his art.

By his own admission, Freud was an often absentee father. Many of his children realized that the best way to connect with him was through his art, so they posed for him as they got older, and had the patience to sit for as long as the exhausting sessions demanded.

Freud's approach to figuration, obsessive in its attempts to capture every detail and flaw, often led to the frustration of the sitter and Freud himself. His work matured in conjunction with the tools he experimented with in order to lessen this frustration, and a key technical breakthrough in mid-career hinged on a switch to stiffer hog-hair brushes that allowed him to apply paint more broadly, as well as the decision to stand while he worked. Freud stated, "My eyes were completely going mad, sitting down and not being able to move. Small brushes, fine canvas. Sitting down used to drive me more and more agitated. I felt I wanted to free myself from this way of working...." While sable brushes had applied the paint lightly, Freud's switch to a different kind of brush, and his standing up at his easel resulted in significant changes in technique and effect. By the 1960s his works were more painterly and layered, with heavier, freer strokes. It was also at that time that Freud began to focus on what he called "naked portraits", detailed nudes that were almost always unflattering. His depictions of his children remain the most controversial.

Later Period

The late 1980s brought recognition on an international level. This was in part due to a powerful and eye-opening 1987 four-country retrospective. As a result he was internationally represented by the American art dealer William Acquavella. Later portraits by Freud include many famous subjects such as artist David Hockney, art critic Martin Gayford, and even the British Queen Elizabeth II. In addition to painting on a large scale, near the end of his career Freud created many etchings, a process that he had also focused on during his early years as a student and artist.

Freud's reputation with women did not waver with age; a fact confirmed when in 2002 the British magazine Tatler listed the octogenarian as the second most eligible bachelor in the nation. Supermodel Kate Moss expressed her desire to meet him, resulting in a friendship and the artist painting her portrait. In 2004 the eighty-two year old artist created two portraits of his thirty-two year old art student girlfriend Alexandra Williams-Wynn, including The Painter Surprised by a Naked Admirer (2004-05) depicting her naked, and wrapped around the legs of the clothed artist at work in his studio.

Freud never relaxed his intense, obsessive painting practice. In referring to his decades-long routine of working all morning, breaking in the afternoon, and then painting again all evening, the artist stated, "I work every day and night. I don't do anything else. There is no point otherwise." Freud continued to work up to his death from bladder cancer at eighty-eight years old.

The Legacy of Lucian Freud

Freud's challenges to the conventions of portraiture have inspired legions of figurative painters. The alternate model for male representation established by his groundbreaking series of portraits of the performance artist Leigh Bowery laid the groundwork for other socially transgressive figurative painters, among them John Currin and Eric Fischl. The impact of Freud's raw and unapologetic approach to the nude lives on in the work of Jenny Saville, Elizabeth Peyton and Luc Tuymans.

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