Lucian Michael Freud, OM, CH (8 December 1922 – 20 July 2011) 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 works are noted for their psychological penetration, and for their often discomforting examination of the relationship between artist and model.
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 evoked Early Netherlandish painting.
From the 1950s, he began to work in 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, with an intense concentration of 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. With this technique, 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 portraits in the new style often used an over life-size scale from the start, but were mostly relatively small heads or half-lengths. Later portraits were often very much larger, and appealed to galleries and collectors. 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.
Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, 1995, a very large portrait of "Big Sue" Tilley (see below), showing his handling of flesh tones, and a typical high viewpoint.
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 of 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). Houseplants, often not in peak condition, featured 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."
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 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, 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.
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.