Artist Stories

The Best of Lucian Freud – Hotheaded Narcissus and Brilliant Painter

Piotr Policht 8 December 2016 min Read

Lucian Freud was born on this day in 1922. It’s a perfect occasion to take look at some of his greatest paintings.

He was conventional in a way. In the late 20th century, he still sticked to realist manner. He constantly created traditional easel paintings on very conventional subject matters like portrait and, above all, nudes. But it is the way he did them that makes him unique.

GDK619735 Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, 1995 (oil on canvas) by Freud, Lucian (1922-2011); 151.3x219 cm; Private Collection; ( Sue Tilley, Job centre supervisor and biographer of Leigh Bowery. Sold for 3,641,000 to Roman Abramovich in 2008, the most expensive work sold by a living artist at auction until 2012.); © The Lucian Freud Archive; PERMISSION REQUIRED TO LICENSE MORE THAN FIVE IMAGES BY THIS ARTIST IN A SINGLE PUBLICATION,REPRODUCTION PERMISSION REQUIRED – EXCEPTIONS APPLY (SEE NOTES); CANNOT BE LICENSED FOR PRINTS OR POSTERS; English, in copyright PLEASE NOTE: This image is protected by artist's copyright which needs to be cleared by you. If you require assistance in clearing permission we will be pleased to help you. In addition, we work with the owner of the image to clear permission. If you wish to reproduce this image, please inform us so we can clear permission for you.
Lucian Freud, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, private collection, 1995

Freud’s nudes are unflattering, to say the least. They have nothing to do with academic studies of idealized body. Even slightly imperfect nudes of XIX-century realist, like Courbet’s, look favorably next to Freud’s. His bodies are wrinkeled, stout, or lean. Skin looks like it’s gone through a many chronic diseases.

Lucian Freud, Large Interior W9, Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, 1973

He kept painting people, but he seemed to deeply hate the whole mankind. It’s hard to conceal that he wasn’t a pleasant man. Yet in school, he was the exact opposite of outgoing kid. He spent nights sleeping in a stables, only horses kept him company. When he was back in classes, other students avoided him, keeping at a long distance. They repined to the teaches that Freud stank because of that notorious stables visits. Journalists and his wannabe biographers troubled him for many years. To discourage one of them, the artist ask some gangsters for help.

Man with a Thistle (Self-Portrait) 1946 Lucian Freud 1922-2011 Purchased 1961
Lucian Freud, Man with a Thistle (Self Portrait), Tate Modern, 1946
Lucian Freud, Self-Portrait, Reflection, private collection, 2002

As a grandson of Sigmunt Freud, the artist couldn’t have evaded psychoanalytical connotations that people have seen in his works. But the model he was most interested with was himself. He painted self-portraits his whole life. In early portraits, models have smooth, a bit greenish complexion, oversized eyes and lips. This style resemble that of Neue Sachlichkeit, a movement that blossomed in Germany before World War II.

GDK619776 Reflection with Two Children (Self Portrait), 1965 (oil on canvas) by Freud, Lucian (1922-2011); 91x91 cm; Private Collection; ( Rose and Ali (Alexander) Boyt, children of the artist.); © The Lucian Freud Archive The best of Lucian
Lucian Freud, Reflection with Two Children (Self-Portrait), Tate Modern, 1965 © The Lucian Freud Archive

And there’s one very special self-portrait, with two of Freud’s kids. He had at least fourteen kids. That is, we know for sure of fourteen, must have been more of them, but Freud didn’t really keep the record. He was married twice, but only two of his children from the first marriage have the same mother. He was almost obsessed with sex, to a very late age, but one cannot find a trace of it in his paintings. Sure, most of them are nudes, yet they are everything but erotic. Freud looked at his subjects like scientist looks at specimens in a lab. Or like Netherlandish still life painters at piles of meat and dead animals.

Lucian Freud, Naked Man with Rat, Art Gallery of Western Australia, 1977-78 The Best of Lucian Freud
Lucian Freud, Naked Man with Rat, Art Gallery of Western Australia, 1977-78

But he deeply cared about his models’ expression. When he painted a man with a rat in his hand, it’s tail leaning over his thigh. The whole process took couple of months (this was, by the way, quite usual for Freud). Painting a rat at the end, or using a dead one, wasn’t an option. The rat was posing with the model from the very beginning to the end. How was that possible? To make the animal stay still, Freud poured him champagne. The drunken rat laid relaxed. What, judging by his expression, cannot be said about the model himself.

David Dawson, The Queen sits for Lucian Freud, 2001 Photo: © David Dawson

One of the famous people Freud portrayed is queen Elizabeth II. He didn’t make her hold a rat for hundreds of hours, but nevertheless caused controversy. It’s clear why. The painting is very small and humble – just a closeup at queen’s face with pearls on her neck and a crown (which wasn’t supposed to be there, the artist decided to add it while working on the picture). But uncompromising, unflattering manner of this portrait shocked those, who expected to see more royal “dignity”.

On the left: Isobel Peachey, Queen Elizabeth II, 2010 On the right: Lucian Freud, Queen Elizabeth II, 2001

Which is quite stupid thing to expect, really. Freud’s powerful gesture makes many other painted portraits of the queen look like a childish attempt to restore 19-century and sometimes even Baroque-era way of portraiture. I think I don’t need to describe it in details. Just take a look at the painting on the left, executed nine years after Freud’s. Looks shallow and silly, doesn’t it?

Find out more:

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