Lucian Freud – master of realism

By Cressida Smart

“I paint people not because of what they are like, not exactly in spite of what they are like, but how they happen to be.” Lucian Freud

Yesterday, I learnt that Lucian Freud, the British painter, had died. William Acquavella, Freud’s worldwide dealer, based in New York, said, “My family and I mourn Lucian Freud not only as one of the great painters of the twentieth century but also as a very dear friend”.

Currently in New York, I decided to visit the Acquavella Galleries on East 79th between Madison and 5th Avenue, but as expected, the heavy metal barriers were down and the gallery was closed.

Aged 88 and regarded as Britain’s finest living painter, Lucian Freud passed away at his home in London on 20 July after a brief illness. Staying true to realism, Freud painted his subjects in all their natural glory, demonstrating acute observations of the human form, whilst modern art moved further towards abstract.

Born on 8 December 1922, in Berlin, Lucian Freud was the second of three sons in a Jewish family. His mother, Lucie, and his father, Ernst, an architect who was the second son of Sigmund Freud, moved the family to London in 1933 as Nazism was on the rise in Germany. The first word he uttered, in his mother’s recollection, was “alleine”, meaning alone or leave me alone; solitude would be the condition he enjoyed most. His path through British schools included time at Bryanston, where he made a sandstone carving of a three-legged horse, which won him a spot at London’s Central School of Arts and Crafts. Freud became a British citizen in 1939.

Home for Freud was Holland Park, where he lived and worked. He preferred to use friends and family members as subjects of his portraits, using thick clumps of paint to reveal the human body’s curves, folds and imperfections. Freud generally spent as much as a year’s worth of regular sittings to complete a portrait. After period in the British Navy in the North Atlantic in 1941, he returned to his art and held his first solo exhibition in 1944. Those years saw Freud mix with the poets Stephen Spender and W.H. Auden, George Orwell, and the critic and editor Cyril Connolly. In the late 1940s, he met the artist Francis Bacon, who would remain a close friend until the 1970s.

Freud had many relationships with women, two of which led to marriage and then divorce. In 1948, he married Kitty Garman, daughter of the sculptor Jacob Epstein, which produced two daughters. In 1953, he married Lady Caroline Blackwood. He had multiple children from later relationships, including novelists Esther Freud, Susie Boyt and Rose Boyt, and fashion designer Bella Freud. He was a member of the Order of Merit, one of Britain’s most prestigious chivalry honours founded in 1902 by Edward VII. The honour is an award presented to individuals of great achievement in the fields of the arts, learning, literature and science. Current members include former prime minister Baroness Thatcher, Sir David Attenborough and inventor of the internet Sir Timothy Berners-Lee. Members receive no rank or title apart from the initials OM after their name.

Freud was well known for bucking the trends of the art world, using his realist approach even when it was in decline amongst critics and collectors. He developed his own unique style, eventually winning recognition as one of the world’s greatest painters.

In 1998, “Naked Portrait with Reflection” sold for or £2.8 million ($4.6 million) setting a record for the most expensive contemporary work sold in Europe. Depicting a voluptuous woman reclining on a sofa in the nude, it was sold again in 2008, for £11.8 million. More recently, “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping”, his portrait of a civil servant named Sue, sold for $33.6 million, the highest ever price for a work by a living artist, at Christie’s in New York. The buyer was reported to be Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich.

Freud’s work continued to draw high prices. In February 2010, at Sotheby’s in London, a 1978 Freud self-portrait showing him with a black eye after a fight with a London taxi driver sold for £2.8 million. Last month, at Christie’s in London, “Woman Smiling” a 1958-1959 Freud portrait of his lover Suzy Boyt, sold for £4.7 million.

One of Freud’s most famous sitters was the Queen, whom he painted in 2001. Many were shocked by the finished work. Newspapers ran headlines such as “You’re no oil painting, Ma’am,”, describing the painting as “unflattering”; the royal photographer Arthur Edwards said, “They should hang it in the khazi.”. Richard Morrison, The Times arts writer said: “The chin has what can only be described as a six-o’clock shadow, and the neck would not disgrace a rugby prop forward.”

However, other critics saw the painting as honest and brave, portraying the Queen’s long service, experience and devotion to duty. The traditional purpose of the royal portrait is to declare the immortality of the class system. Reverential appearance charged with symbols of power and deference to position becomes expected. Freud’s portrait composition has focused on the top front part of the Queen’s neck, face and bottom to middle part of her crown. There are no symbols to indicate her true social position. The brutality of the naturalism has removed any elegant or romantic notions of the Queen. She appears glum and unyielding. His portrayal should not come as a surprise though as his previous portraits demonstrate his liberal approach when depicting his subject.

Staying true to his artistic beliefs, Freud curved out a career that abandoned major twentieth century developments in art. Britain has lost a great artist, whose realism invited the viewer to celebrate the human form in all its splendour. I will return to the Aquavella Gallery this week, which no doubt is inundated with those keen to make a tidy sum from this sad event. No doubt, post death, Freud will continue to break records, but for the moment, let us mourn the death of a great painter who lived to paint and painted until the day he died, far removed from the noise of the art world.


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