Lucian Michael Freud, OM, CH (8 December 1922 – 20 July 2011) was a British painter. Known chiefly for his thickly impasted portrait and figure paintings, he was widely considered the pre-eminent British artist of his time. His works are noted for their psychological penetration, and for their often discomfiting examination of the relationship between artist and model.
Born in Berlin, Freud was the son of an Austrian Jewish father, Ernst L. Freud, an architect, and a German Jewish mother, Lucie née Brasch. He was a grandson of Sigmund Freud, the elder brother of the late broadcaster, writer and politician Clement Freud (thus uncle of Emma and Matthew Freud) and the younger brother of Stephan Gabriel Freud.
He moved with his family to St John’s Wood, London, in 1933 to escape the rise of Nazism. He became a British citizen in 1939, having attended Dartington Hall School in Totnes, Devon, and later Bryanston School.
Freud briefly studied at the Central School of Art in London, and from 1939 with greater success at Cedric Morris’ East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing in Dedham, relocated in 1940 at Benton End near Hadleigh. He also attended Goldsmiths, University of London from 1942–3.
He served as a merchant seaman in an Atlantic convoy in 1941 before being invalided out of service in 1942.
In 1943, Tambimuttu, the Sri Lankan editor, commissioned the young artist to illustrate a book of poems by Nicholas Moore entitled “The Glass Tower.” It was published the following year by Editions Poetry London and comprised, among other drawings, a stuffed zebra (-cum-unicorn) and a palm tree. Both subjects reappeared in The Painter’s Room on display at Freud’s first solo exhibition in 1944 at the Alex Reid & Lefevre Gallery. In the summer of 1946, he travelled to Paris before continuing to Greece for several months. In the early fifties Freud was a frequent visitor to Dublin where he would share Patrick Swift’s studio – during this period the artists also worked side by side in London when Swift would visit Freud. He otherwise lived and worked in London for the rest of his life.
Freud formed part of a group of figurative artists that the American artist, Ronald Kitaj, later named “The School of London”. This was more a loose collection of individual artists who knew each other, some intimately, and were working in London at the same time in the figurative style (but during the boom years of abstract painting). The group was led by figures such as Francis Bacon and Freud, and included Frank Auerbach, Michael Andrews, Leon Kossoff, Robert Colquhoun, Robert MacBryde, Reginald Gray, and Kitaj himself. Most of these artists, including Freud, were involved with Patrick Swift’s ‘X’ magazine, which ran from 1959–62. He was a visiting tutor at the Slade School of Fine Art of University College London from 1949–54.
Change in style
Freud’s early paintings are often associated with surrealism and depict people, plants and animals in unusual juxtapositions. These works were usually created with thin layers of paint.
From the 1950s, he began to work in portraiture, often nudes, to the almost complete exclusion of everything else, employing impasto. With this technique, he would often clean his brush after each stroke. The colours in these paintings are typically muted.
Girl with a white dog, 1951 – 1952, Tate Gallery. Portrait of Freud’s first wife, Kitty (Kathleen) Garman, the daughter of Jacob Epstein and Kathleen Garman.
Freud’s portraits often depict only the sitter, sometimes sprawled naked on the floor or on a bed or alternatively juxtaposed with something else, as in Girl With a White Dog (1951–52) and Naked Man With Rat (1977–78). The use of animals in his compositions is widespread, and often features pet and owner. Other examples of portraits with both animals and people in Freud’s work include Guy and Speck (1980–81), Eli and David (2005–06) and Double Portrait (1985–86). He had a special passion for horses, having enjoyed riding at school in Dartington, where he sometimes slept in the stables. His portraits solely of horses include Grey Gelding (2003), Skewbald Mare (2004), and Mare Eating Hay (2006).
Freud’s subjects were often the people in his life; friends, family, fellow painters, lovers, children. He said, “The subject matter is autobiographical, it’s all to do with hope and memory and sensuality and involvement, really. In the 1970s Freud spent 4,000 hours on a series of paintings of his mother, about which art historian Lawrence Gowing observed “it is more than 300 years since a painter showed as directly and as visually his relationship with his mother. And that was Rembrandt.”
In art critic Martin Gayford’s 2010 book, Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud, Gayford chronicled the forty days he spent with Lucian Freud while sitting for his portrait. Gayford surmised that Freud sought to capture his model’s individuality by, as Gayford named it, his “omnivorous” gaze. Gayford also mentions that his final portrait seemed to “reveal secrets—ageing, ugliness, faults—that I imagine…I am hiding from the world…” – suggesting how sharp and penetrating Freud’s gaze is.
“I paint people,” Freud said, “not because of what they are like, not exactly in spite of what they are like, but how they happen to be.”Freud painted fellow artists, including Frank Auerbach and Francis Bacon. He produced a series of portraits of the performance artist Leigh Bowery, and also painted Henrietta Moraes, a muse to many Soho artists. Towards the end of his life he did a nude portrait of model Kate Moss. Freud was one of the best known British artists working in a representational style, and was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1989.
His painting After Cézanne, which is notable because of its unusual shape, was bought by the National Gallery of Australia for $7.4 million. The top left section of this painting has been ‘grafted’ on to the main section below, and closer inspection reveals a horizontal line where these two sections were joined.
In 1996, Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal mounted a major exhibition of 27 paintings and thirteen etchings, covering the whole period of Freud’s working life to date. The following year the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art presented “Lucian Freud: Early Works”. The exhibition comprised around 30 drawings and paintings done between 1940 and 1945. This was followed by a large retrospective at Tate Britain in 2002. During a period from May 2000 to December 2001, Freud painted Queen Elizabeth II. There was criticism of this portrayal of the Queen in some sections of the British media. The highest selling tabloid newspaper, The Sun, was particularly condemnatory, describing the portrait as “a travesty”. In 2005, a retrospective of Freud’s work was held at the Museo Correr in Venice scheduled to coincide with the Biennale. In late 2007, a collection of Freud’s etchings titled “Lucian Freud: The Painter’s Etchings” went on display at the Museum of Modern Art.
In May 2008, his 1995 portrait Benefits Supervisor Sleeping was sold at auction by Christie’s in New York City for $33.6 million, setting a world record for sale value of a painting by a living artist.
In November 2008, letters written by Freud were obtained by The Independent under the Freedom of Information Act. They detail his bitter dispute with some of the most powerful figures in the art world after he was asked to represent Britain at the 1954 Venice Biennale, the world’s leading contemporary art exhibition. The publicity-shy portrait painter locked horns with gallery officials after a selection committee rebuffed his suggestions of works to show in Italy. The article includes a copy of the letter written by Freud to the British Council complaining about the selection process.
On October 13, 2011, Freud’s 1952 Boy’s Head, portrait of Charlie Lumley, his neighbor, reached $4,998,088 at Sotheby’s London Contemporary art evening auction, making it one of the highlights of the 2011 auction fall season.
Painting from life, Freud was apt to spend a great deal of time with one subject, and demanded the model’s presence even while working on subsidiary elements. A nude completed in 2007 required sixteen months of work, with the model posing all but four evenings during that time; with each session averaging five hours, the painting took approximately 2,400 hours to complete. A rapport with his models was necessary, and while at work, Freud was characterised as “an outstanding raconteur and mimic”. Regarding the difficulty in deciding when a painting is completed, Freud said that “he feels he’s finished when he gets the impression he’s working on somebody else’s painting”.
It was Freud’s practice to begin a painting by first drawing in charcoal on the canvas. He then applied paint to a small area of the canvas, and gradually worked outward from that point. For a new sitter, he often started with the head as a means of “getting to know” the person, then painted the rest of the figure, eventually returning to the head as his comprehension of the model deepened. A section of canvas was intentionally left bare until the painting was finished, as a reminder that the work was in progress. The finished painting is an accumulation of richly worked layers of pigment, as well as months of intense observation.
Freud is rumoured to have fathered as many as forty children although this number is generally accepted as an exaggeration. Fourteen children have been identified, two from Freud’s first marriage and 13 by various mistresses.
After an affair with Lorna Garman, he went on to marry, in 1948, her niece Kathleen “Kitty” Epstein, daughter of sculptor Jacob Epstein and socialite Kathleen Garman. They had two daughters, Annie and Annabel Freud, and the marriage ended in 1952. Kitty Freud, later known as Kitty Godley, died in 2011.
Freud then began an affair with Guinness beer heiress and writer Lady Caroline Blackwood. They married in 1953 and divorced in 1959
Edited from Lucian Freud