Lucian Michael Freud, OM, CH (born December 8, 1922 in Berlin, Germany, July 20, 2011 in London), was a German-born British painter. Known chiefly for his thickly impastoed portrait and figure paintings, he was widely considered the pre-eminent British artist of his time.
His early career as a painter was influenced by surrealism, but by the early 1950s his often stark and alienated paintings tended towards realism. Freud was an intensely private and guarded man, and his paintings, completed over a 60-year career, are mostly of friends and family. They are generally sombre and thickly impastoed, often set in unsettling interiors and urban landscapes.
Freud draws his pictures from the observation of naked as clothed people, who usually belong to his personal environment – in motion, at rest, in sleep. “This is a bit like wildlife photography – from one of the animals” as he himself says.
Lucian Freud presents humans and animals as a rule, as if they were unobserved and completely relaxed. Freud’s self-willed expansion of portraits towards naked portraits, which have nothing in common with conventional nudes, has made him an exceptional phenomenon within figural painting. Freud paints his models in long sessions, which often take several hours per week over several months. If he worked in the 1940s with a thin, two-dimensional color application, the latter soon gave way to a pasty picture surface.
The works are noted for their psychological penetration and often discomforting examination of the relationship between artist and model. Freud worked from life studies, and was known for asking for extended and punishing sittings from his models.
Born in Berlin, Freud was the son of a German Jewish mother, Lucie (née Brasch), and an Austrian Jewish father, Ernst L. Freud, an architect. He was a grandson of Sigmund Freud, and elder brother of the broadcaster, writer and politician Clement Freud (thus uncle of Emma and Matthew Freud) and the younger brother of Stephan Gabriel Freud.
The family emigrated to St John’s Wood, London, in 1933 to escape the rise of Nazism. Lucian became a British subject in 1939, having attended Dartington Hall School in Totnes, Devon, and later Bryanston School, for a year before being expelled due to disruptive behaviour.
Freud briefly studied at the Central School of Art in London, and from 1939 to 1942 with greater success at Cedric Morris’ East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing in Dedham, relocated in 1940 to Benton End, a house near Hadleigh, Suffolk. He also attended Goldsmiths’ College, part of the University of London, in 1942–43. He served as a merchant seaman in an Atlantic convoy in 1941 before being invalided out of service in 1942.
In 1943, the poet and editor Meary James Thurairajah Tambimuttu 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 and a palm tree. Both subjects reappeared in The Painter’s Room on display at Freud’s first solo exhibition in 1944 at the Lefevre Gallery. In the summer of 1946, he travelled to Paris before continuing to Greece for several months to visit John Craxton. In the early fifties he was a frequent visitor to Dublin where he would share Patrick Swift’s studio. In late 1952, Freud and Lady Caroline Blackwood eloped to Paris where they married in 1953. He remained a Londoner for the rest of his life.
Freud was part of a group of figurative artists 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. He was a visiting tutor at the Slade School of Fine Art of University College London from 1949 to 1954.
Freud’s early paintings, which are mostly very small, are often associated with German Expressionism (an influence he tended to deny) and Surrealism in depicting people, plants and animals in unusual juxtapositions. Some very early works anticipate the varied flesh tones of his mature style, for example Cedric Morris (1940, National Museum of Wales), but after the end of the war he developed a thinly painted very precise linear style with muted colours, best known in his self-portrait Man with Thistle (1946, Tate) and a series of large-eyed portraits of his first wife, Kitty Garman, such as Girl with a Kitten (1947, Tate). These were painted with tiny sable brushes and evoke Early Netherlandish painting.
From the 1950s, he began to focus on portraiture, often nudes (though his first full length nude was not painted until 1966), to the almost complete exclusion of everything else, and by the middle of the decade developed a much more free style using large hogs-hair brushes, concentrating on the texture and colour of flesh, and much thicker paint, including impasto. Girl with a white dog, 1951–1952, (Tate) is an example of a transitional work in this process, sharing many characteristics with paintings before and after it, with relatively tight brushwork and a middling size and viewpoint. He would often clean his brush after each stroke when painting flesh, so that the colour remained constantly variable. He also started to paint standing up, which continued until old age, when he switched to a high chair. The colours of non-flesh areas in these paintings are typically muted, while the flesh becomes increasingly highly and variably coloured. By about 1960, Freud had established the style that he would use, with some changes, for the rest of his career. The later portraits often use an over life-size scale, but are of mostly relatively small heads or in half-lengths. Later portraits are often much larger. In his late career he often followed a portrait by producing an etching of the subject in a different pose, drawing directly onto the plate, with the sitter in his view.
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). According to Edward Chaney, “The distinctive, recumbent manner in which Freud poses so many of his sitters suggests the conscious or unconscious influence both of his grandfather’s psychoanalytical couch and of the Egyptian mummy, his dreaming figures, clothed or nude, staring into space until (if ever) brought back to health and/or consciousness. The particular application of this supine pose to freaks, friends, wives, mistresses, dogs, daughters and mother alike (the latter regularly depicted after her suicide attempt and eventually, literally mummy-like in death), tends to support this hypothesis.”
The use of animals in his compositions is widespread, and often he features a pet and its 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). Wilting houseplants feature prominently in some portraits, especially in the 1960s, and Freud also produced a number of paintings purely of plants. Other regular features included mattresses in earlier works, and huge piles of the linen rags with which he used to clean his brushes in later ones. Some portraits, especially in the 1980s, have very carefully painted views of London roofscapes seen through the studio windows.
Freud’s subjects, who needed to make a very large and uncertain commitment of their time, 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.” However the titles were mostly anonymous, and the identity of the sitter not always disclosed; the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire had a portrait of one of Freud’s daughters as a baby for several years before he mentioned who the model was. 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.”
Freud painted from life, and usually spent a great deal of time with each subject, demanding the model’s presence even while working on the background of the portrait. 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”. Paintings were divided into day paintings done in natural light and night paintings done under artificial light, and the sessions, and lighting, were never mixed.
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. The finished painting is an accumulation of richly worked layers of pigment, as well as months of intense observation.
Freud painted fellow artists, including Frank Auerbach and Francis Bacon and produced a large number of portraits of the performance artist Leigh Bowery, and also painted Henrietta Moraes, a muse to many Soho artists. A series of huge nude portraits from the mid-1990s depicted the very large Sue Tilley, or “Big Sue”, some using her job title of “Benefits Supervisor” in the title of the painting, as in his 1995 portrait Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, which in May 2008 was sold by Christie’s in New York for $33.6 million, setting a world record auction price for a living artist.
Freud’s most consistent model in his later years was his studio assistant and friend David Dawson, the subject of his final, unfinished work. 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, notable because of its unusual shape, was purchased 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, the Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal mounted a major exhibition of 27 paintings and thirteen etchings, covering Freud’s output 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. In 2001, Freud completed a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. There was criticism of the portrayal in some sections of the British media. 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 etchings went on display at the Museum of Modern Art.
Freud died in London on 20 July 2011 and is buried in Highgate Cemetery. Archbishop Rowan Williams officiated at the private funeral.