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 - Tate, England
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
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 - Collection of the Royal Collection Trust, England