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Unmatched in his depiction of human flesh and the penetrating realism of his life studies, Lucian Freud is a crucial name in British contemporary art. Over his 60 year career, Freud’s paintings set a new standard for expression of human flesh and of the Nude more generally, choosing to confront psychological and imperfect physical aspects of the human body - often expressed through his thick impasto technique. Remaining consistent in style and in unflinching intensity, Freud painted only himself, close friends, and family - maintaining his reputation as an extremely private individual.
Born in Berlin in 1922, Freud moved to England with his family in 1933 to escape the rise of Nazism. Here, he attended Goldsmiths College from 1942, having previously attended (albeit briefly) the Central School of Art in London and Cedric Morris’ East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing.
His early works are often considered to be influenced by Surrealism, as he began his artistic career as a draughtsman creating surreal etched portraits of faces. One of his first drawing commissions was to illustrate a book of poems by Nicholas Moore - The Glass Tower, in 1943 and again seemed to support this Surrealist categorisation as it featured absurdist motifs such as a bloated stuffed zebra and a palm tree. His focus on the human form, however, quickly superseded his experimental focus on these subjects.
Freud’s first solo exhibition was held at the Lefevre Gallery in 1944, entitled The Painter’s Room, and contained etchings, sketches and paintings that were largely of inanimate objects. At this point Freud lacked sitters and the ability to properly travel due to the Second World War. The show contained many motifs however, that consistently appeared across the artist’s oeuvre, such as that of a palm tree which resided in his studio for the next decade. This show has received much retrospective praise.
Hints of Freud’s fascination with the flesh and the beginnings of his signature style, are seen in his paintings from the early 1950s, a decade which also marked the beginning of his widespread success. Girl with a White Dog, (1950-51) is a particularly poignant example and one of his more famous early works. The muse is Freud’s own wife, Kitty Garman, who reclines on a sofa facing the viewer directly. Her robe reveals one of her breasts, and a white bull terrier (given to the pair as a wedding gift) rests its head on her right leg. Despite the flatness and Freud’s signature analytic distance from the sitter, clear focus on her exposed skin suggests a sense of intimacy with her body that would come to define his later nude portraits.
The most famous of Freud’s self portraits is his 1985 work Reflection, painted when the artist was 63 years old. Though he completed many self portraits throughout his lifetime this work is a prime example of how his expressive brushstrokes and harsh employment of texture in fact reflect a sense of internal critique and turmoil. His eyes look at the viewer directly, asking us to inspect how honest this image is, the layers of paint only highlighting Freud’s unflinching approach to his own haggard, sagging skin.
Furthermore, his series depicting sitter Sue Tilley, a government worker, whom he used to essentially reimagine the classical recumbent nude was also extremely successful. Benefits Supervisor Resting (1994) marked his hyperfixation on the tonal components of the flesh, and one’s eye cannot help but travel across the unflattering study of the folds and textures of the human form. He created a series of works where Tilley was the subject, all of which were hugely successful, yet this particular painting is considered his ultimate tour de force, with Christie's head of post-war art, Brett Gorvy describing the work as being 'recognised internationally as Freud’s masterpiece…[it] proclaims him as one of the greatest painters of the human form in history, alongside Rembrandt and Rubens.'
Aside from an early nod to Surrealism, Freud was heavily influenced (particularly in his earlier works) by artists from the Slade School, such as Stanley Spencer, who used mild distortion and overt flatness in his paintings. This influence is particularly clear in Freud’s studies of Kitty Garman.
He was also extremely influenced by Francis Bacon, creating a string of portraits of his fellow artist and sharing his fascination with the human body. This is particularly significant considering Freud’s outward dislike of his more famous artistic predecessors - he once described Picasso as 'poisonous.'
Freud’s painterly style remained remarkably consistent across his long career, maintaining its layered application and impasto finish. His early exploration of portraiture in the 1940s saw him use tiny, thin sable brushes that acted as a nod to Netherlandish painting (used in Girl With A White Dog). Freud was able to utilise the materiality of his paintings to render his sitters distorted, yet just about recognisable, layering paint and leaning into its physical properties to depict the contours, shadows and movement of human flesh. He used impasto technique, particularly visible in the buildup of oil paint in his self portraits, which create a three dimensional quality to his works.
After briefly travelling to France and Greece in the summer of 1946, Freud settled in London permanently. He was considered a part of the ‘School of London’ - a loose group of artists, including Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossof whose work rejected Abstract Expressionism which was hugely popular at the time. Indeed, Freud even sat for Bacon, resulting in Bacon’s most expensive recorded painting: Three Studies of Lucian Freud, (1969) which sold for £89.4 million at auction in 2013.
Freud’s relationships and personal life remain a topic of controversy, particularly as he is rumoured to have fathered up to forty children by different women, with only 14 being properly identified today. Throughout the 1940s the artist was rumoured to have had a relationship with artists Adrian Ryan and John Minton. He married Kitty Garman in 1948 after having had an affair with her aunt Lorna Garman and the pair had two daughters before divorcing. Freud went on to marry Lady Caroline Blackwood in 1953, heiress to the Guinness fortune and subject of his work Hotel Bedroom (1954).
In 2001 Freud was commissioned to paint a portrait of the Queen for the Jubilee - a work which received significant criticism in the British press due to its realism and the lack of special artistic treatment she received at his hand. He died in London in 2011 and remained intensely private, he did not vote nor divulge personal information, largely for fear of his personal life swaying people’s opinions of his paintings. He claimed: 'The man is nothing, the work is everything.'
Freud’s paintings and prints remain some of the most sought-after in the world today, with his Portrait On A White Cover, (2002) selling for £22.5 million at Christies in 2016 - the most expensive of his paintings sold in London. This title was previously held by his portrait of pregnant supermodel Kate Moss, (Naked Portrait, 2002) which sold for £7.3 million in 2006.
His famous study of muse Sue Tilley however, namely, Benefits Supervisor Resting, (1994) was sold for $33.6 million in 2008, making it at the time the most expensive painting ever sold at auction.