Lucian Freud

gigatos | May 7, 2022


Lucian Freud, born on December 8, 1922 in Berlin and died on July 20, 2011 in London, was a British figurative painter and printmaker of German origin.

He is considered one of the most important figurative painters of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the “Ingres of existentialism” according to the formula of art historian Herbert Read.

He is notably famous for having painted, in 2001, the portrait of Queen Elizabeth II on the occasion of her golden jubilee, a painting that raised a controversy in Great Britain.

Grandson of the physician and founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, and his wife Martha Bernays, Lucian was born in Berlin. His father, the architect Ernst L. Freud (1892-1970), was the youngest son of Sigmund Freud. In 1933, to escape Nazi anti-Semitism, Ernst Freud took his family to London: his wife Lucie Brasch and his sons Lucian, Stephen (1921-2015) and Clement (1924-2009). In 1938, following the Anschluss, Sigmund Freud joined them.

After his secondary education, Lucian entered the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London in 1938-1939. From 1939 to 1941, he followed the courses of Cedric Morris (en) at the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing in Dedham. He was then mobilized in the Merchant Navy and demobilized after three months at sea. From 1942 to 1943 he studied part-time at Goldsmith”s College in London.

In 1943, he illustrated Nicholas Moore”s poems. He exhibited for the first time at the Lefèvre Gallery in London in 1944. His painting was then influenced by surrealism, as shown in the enigmatic painting The Painter”s Room. Already, “Freud”s personal world is represented: the window, the plant, the animal, all the elements of his work are in place.

In 1946, Freud visited Paris and Greece. He would return to Paris very regularly to visit Picasso and Giacometti.

In 1948, he married the daughter of the sculptor Jacob Epstein, Kitty Garman and had two daughters, Annabel Freud and the poet Annie Freud. He divorced Kitty in 1952 and remarried in 1953 to Lady Caroline Blackwood. In 1952, he painted in room 38 of the Hotel La Louisiane the painting “Hotel Bedroom” where he appears with Lady Caroline Blackwood. This second marriage was not happier and their divorce took place in 1958. He painted beautiful portraits inspired by his wives Kitty (Girl with a white Dog, 1950-51) and Caroline (Girl in a Green Dress, 1952). Lucian Freud, who did not appreciate the constraints of family life, then lived as a bachelor, with successive companions from whom he had many children and grandchildren. Fourteen children have been identified, including the fashion designer Bella Freud (born in 1961), the writer Esther Freud, the artist Jane McAdam Freud (in) (born in 1958) or Noah Woodman, among others.

In the early 1960s, his encounter with Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, Michael Andrews, in a group led by R.B. Kitaj turned his technique around. Bacon and Auerbach had convinced him to leave his fine, linear style and to let himself go with large brush strokes. His painting became thicker and thicker, applied in muted tones, in beiges and grays, heightened with white. This group became known as the “School of London” – a group to which an exhibition was devoted in 1998-1999 at the Musée Maillol. This group of figurative painters was formed in reaction to the dominant post-war abstract painting and claimed a realistic painting beyond appearances to identify the truth of the subjects.

Lucian Freud painted his family, his mother Lucie and daughters (Bella and Esther, 1987-1988), his friends, other artists, including Frank Auerbach and Francis Bacon, famous people and strangers, some posing only for a work, and produced a large number of portraits of Australian performance artist Leigh Bowery, and also Henrietta Moraes, muse to many Soho artists. A series of huge nude portraits from the mid-1990s depicted the very large Sue Tilley, or “Big Sue” with a generous figure, some using her job title of “Benefits Supervisor” in the title of the painting. The monumental Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, 1995, sold for $33.6 million at Christie”s in New York in 2008 and broke the sales record for a living artist.

He paints in front of live models in the confines of his studio. The views of London or his garden are made from the anchor of the studio. He worked all day and the posing sessions he inflicted on his models were endless. His painting After Cézanne, notable for its unusual shape, was purchased by the National Gallery of Australia for $7.4 million. The upper left section of this painting has been “grafted” onto the main section below, and closer inspection reveals a horizontal line where these two sections have been joined.

At the end of his life, nude portraits dominate his painting revealing the raw intimacy of his models, that of Leigh Bowery, Sue Tilley or his faithful assistant David Dawson (Sunny Morning-Eight Legs, 1997). But even the dressed models reveal to the spectator their nudity, the truth of the being that pierces all appearance “When I paint clothes, I really paint naked people covered with clothes” he explained. The portrait of his friend and riding companion Andrew Parker Bowles, whose splendid uniform with its many medals is half-open and shows the sadness of an inner fatigue, (The Brigadier, 2003-4), is an example. In his self-portraits, he scrutinizes his own face as well as that of others, without benevolence. Critics see in his work an obsessive quest to probe human nature through its carnal envelope. His large, provocative and uncompromising nudes of the 1990s, depicted in large-scale canvases, mark the peak of his work.

Passionate about horse racing and dogs, Lucian Freud was an unrepentant gambler. One of his great collectors, Alfie McLean, was a bookmaker from Northern Ireland who allowed him to pay off his gambling debts in paintings. But over the decades, the painter owed him so much money that the portraits were no longer enough to pay back what he owed him. When, in 1992, the American dealer William Acquavella wanted to represent the painter, he first had to pay Alfie McLean the balance of his gambling debts amounting to £2.7 million. When Alfie McLean died in 2006, he owned 23 works worth an estimated £100 million at the time. Freud painted several portraits of the bookmaker including “The Big Man (1976-1977)”.

Lucian Freud died in the night of July 20 to 21, 2011, in his residence in London. He is buried in Highgate Cemetery. Although he became very rich, the artist lived simply, in a house with a garden located in the district of Notting Hill, where he had installed his workshops upstairs.


Freud”s talent was recognized in the 1970s and 1980s with the 1974 retrospective exhibition of his work at the Hayward Gallery in London, and then in 1982 with the publication of the first monograph devoted to his work by Lawrence Gowing. The first major traveling exhibition of his work took place in 1987-1988 (Washington, Paris, London, Berlin). After the London School exhibition, there followed, in 2002, the Tate Britain exhibition, the La Caixa Barcelona Foundation exhibition, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. In 2005, an important retrospective of his work was held in Venice. In 2010 – Lucian Freud is 88 years old – is presented in Paris the exhibition “Lucian Freud – L”Atelier”, at the Centre national d”art et de culture Georges-Pompidou, more than twenty years after the first retrospective devoted to him by the Centre, in 1987

Lucian Freud”s work is divided into several periods: a first period with surrealist compositions; then a realistic period called “neo-romantic”, where portraits appear in a light texture; finally the period of maturity, which made the reputation of the artist.

Painted in a thick texture, in brown, gray and white tones, the portraits often appear as if seen with a particular acuity that does not want to hide any detail, especially of the face, of the model being scrutinized. Painted on the spot, they are repeated many times.

The nude models are seen in desolate studios – in fact the empty apartment where the painter works -, on beds or broken sofas in unusual poses and with raw attitudes. No detail is hidden. The lighting of the scene is often electric, and there are “strokes of white” on the flesh of the painted models that reinforce the sensation of artificial lighting. Freud speaks of a “particular deformation” that he achieves through his way of working and observing.

It must also be recognized that, for his detractors, Freud”s particular style is shocking because of the caricatural, almost morbid aspect of some of his works.

Painter, Freud is also an engraver. We owe him an abundant work engraved on copper, in black and white, which takes up and reinterprets the themes of his painting.

Lucian Freud worked almost every day for the last three years of his life on a painting entitled Portrait of the Hound. This painting remained unfinished. It is a portrait of his friend David Dawson who was also his assistant.

Hector Obalk”s point of view

The art critic Hector Obalk dedicated to Lucian Freud an episode of his program Grand”Art, broadcast on Arte in March 2009. He takes us on a journey through the world of the artist from his beginnings to his recent work, notably through a series of self-portraits ranging from his paintings of the 1940s to the one of 2005. Hector Obalk sees this as a good way to describe the evolution of Freud”s technique. He also sees in them, in turn, the representation of a presumptuous painter, sure of himself, falsely worried, finally assuming his nudity and the marks of old age. His last self-portrait represents him naked, with his feet in open shoes, holding his palette with his left hand and his painting knife with his right, in the emptiness of his studio, “which he never wanted to arrange”, says the critic.

His portraits are of “ordinary” people, people close to the painter. They sometimes constitute series, like those of the Irish industrialist, his dog and his son, those of his daughter or his assistant David Dawson. By rendering as faithfully as possible certain elements of light, by exaggerating other features, Lucian Freud was able to make the character of his characters felt.

His non-animated subjects tend to be integrated as elements of the portrait, whether they are details (watch winder or belt for the industrialist, the industrialist”s son”s tie rendering the reflections of the room) or more important (clutter on the chair next to his assistant). However, some works are exclusively about decorative elements, such as two representations of the sink in his workshop.

From a technical point of view, Hector Obalk noticed at the beginning of his work an attachment to reflections in the eyes, certain exaggerations almost touching on caricature and, always, an obsessive search for the rendering of light. In his later years, Freud did not draw, so to speak, but rather applied the tinted touches of skin tones, thus drawing faces, which were sometimes covered with a thick layer of paint. For Obalk, however, this was not always a success…

The latter notes three changes in Freud”s painting technique. First, a change of tool, a harder brush. Then, the change to a white containing more lead oxide, which allows him to render the contrasts of light even better. Finally, after having mastered his technique, a total rethinking that made him abandon in 1988, as mentioned above, the drawing of forms, for the application of touches of color, a rethinking that only Titian had previously been able to do, a risk made possible because of the great technical mastery, but also the venerable age reached by the two painters.

”  Je pense qu”un grand portrait a à voir avec la façon dont on l”aborde. {…} Je pense donc que le portrait est une attitude.  “

– Lucian Freud

The portrait is an attitude. What makes a great portrait is the way in which it is envisioned, how it is set up. Lucian Freud spoke of impulse when choosing his models. These impulses – or furious desires, according to the translation – are a first indication of the tight bond that is maintained between him and his images. This is why he has always referred to his work as autobiographical. “Everything is autobiographical,” wrote Martin Gayford about Freud in the edition of his sketchbooks. The introduction to Sarah Howgate”s book explains that the Arts Council of England bequeathed to the National Portrait Gallery “this fascinating body of material includes 47 sketchbooks (…) and 35 letters. She found it important to include letters as an integral part of her artistic practice. Just as many of her sketchbooks and drawings are covered with writings, memos, cell phone numbers, appointments and sketches of love letters, the connection between life and art are inseparable.

The paintings he produced are representations of those closest to him. From his friends to his children, his wives, his assistant, his whippet. Even though Freud categorically refuses to let his feelings show in his paintings, one cannot completely remain neutral when faced with the precision and truth of the people depicted. Everything is shown, the muscles stretched by the pose, the fat and bulges, the bone structure. The accuracy in the representation brings out the precise observation of what is painted, the primordial attention that he puts into representing his loved ones and the fidelity of the detail.

The place is closed, always the same: the painter”s studio. A personal place, empty, everything that is present has only one purpose, to serve his painting. Sofas, sofas, sheets and rags, mattresses, a sink, some plants, and nothing else. The walls are empty, covered with color, the trace of a quick gesture to remove the pictorial material present on his brushes.

Sebastian Smee in Beholding the animal will use the term “naked portrait” as opposed to the traditional word “nude”. Robert Hughes will continue in this sense by adding “While fiercely preserving respect”.

Nudity plays a precise role in Freud”s work, and it arrives exactly where intimacy stops, at the level of the image produced. It serves his purpose at the biological level of things: in the same way that he paints animals and plants, the naked human body is seen as a beast at rest. No feelings are shown or should be present at the time of painting, at the risk of leaving it unfinished, as happened in 1977 with his Last Portrait, an oil on canvas that remained unfinished, but was still exhibited to the public with its evocative title, “The Last Portrait”.

The series of portraits of his mother could also suggest a certain link between the two people, but the reason is much less sentimental. In 1970, after the death of Ernest, Lucian”s father, his mother tried to commit suicide and then fell into a depression after being brought back to life by his sister who was passing by. Freud will say: “She”d lost interest in every thing, including me”. The fact that she had lost interest in him propelled her to the position of ideal model, and he painted her without interruption for fifteen years, before she also died out.

To get to the end of his argument, Freud took as models the people he knew most intimately, his children. He made several portraits of his daughters, children, then young adults and finally pregnant women, naked, arms and legs spread in front of the painter. He thus broke any relationship to eroticism that could be seen in his work, and based his argument on the observation of the body for what it has of material, just like his whippet. He himself said: “If I had thought it odd to paint them, I would never have done so.”

Despite a creative process that is steeped in intimacy and connection with his loved ones. The scene of his empty studio, without anyone else since even David Dawson who was his assistant for many years had to leave when Freud began to paint, then the nudity. Lucian Freud was completely impervious to his feelings in his work. He explained himself clearly on this subject: “It is never an erotic situation, the model and I, we make a painting, not love.

External links


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