Paint made flesh

An important chapter of art history has closed with the death of Lucien Freud on Wednesday July 20 at the age of 88, grandson of Sigmund and widely considered to be the greatest modern portrait artist.

Freud was born in Berlin in 1922. He moved to Britain in 1933 after Hitler came to power. His arts training took place at the Central School of Art in London, the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing and at Goldsmiths.

Self Portrait, Reflection

Freud’s career spanned a tumultuous period of art history. He was a contemporary of artists such as David Hockney and Francis Bacon, and with his early works that showed a Surrealist influence, was an important figure in the birth of British modernism. After moving into more conventional portraiture, he became acclaimed as one of the finest figurative artists of all time, with an eye for uncompromisingly honest detail that was compared to masters of the genre such as Rembrandt.

He focussed almost exclusively on producing portraits of people he knew personally, and was renowned for his obsessive approach to his subjects, who were often expected to be present throughout the entire process, unlike many portrait artists who would not require subjects to be present after making sketches. Explaining this approach to a journalist, he said “I could never put anything into a picture that wasn’t actually there in front of me. That would be a pointless lie, a mere bit of artfulness.”

Portrait of Freud’s daughter, Bella

The characteristic “fleshiness” of his paintings was achieved with layers and layers heavily pigmented, chalky paints applied in an impasto style. The muted colours, also characteristic of his work, emphasised the form and details of the subjects, who were often depicted naked and “unposed”. He suggested that the muted toned do not “distract” the viewer from the physical form. He said “I don’t want any colour to be noticeable … I don’t want it to operate in the modernist sense as colour, something independent … Full, saturated colours have an emotional significance I want to avoid.”

He avoided depictions of traditional beauty, often depicting characters with emaciated frames or who were obese. One of his favourite subjects was performance artist and transvestite Leigh Bowery.

Pluto and the Bateman Sisters (1995)

His later work included a controversial portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, for which he convinced the monarch to be present at many sittings at St James’s Palace, between May 2000 and December 2001. The portrait was widely criticised for its unflattering portrayal of the queen.

He also produced a series of paintings of model Kate Moss.

Kate Moss (2010)

He held the record for prices commanded by a living artist. In 2008, his painting Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995) set the record, selling for £17.2-million at Christie’s in New York.

Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995)


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