Lucian Freud; The Searing Power of Portaiture

Lucian Freud changed both the stylistic face of contemporary portraiture, and the relationship between artist and subject. He put his subjects under a lens so intense they almost seemed to deconstruct. The power of his gaze, the depth of his psychological penetration in itself, was almost as much the subject of the painting, as the person portrayed. That power was turned on his friends, family, and himself, with equal, unwaveringness. Below are three self portraits, followed by a photograph.

Born in Berlin, in 1922, the grandson of Sigmund Freud, Lucian moved to London with his family in 1933, to escape Hitler. His father was an architect and his mother a timber heiress. Freud proved to be an indifferent student in his early years, being more interested in horses than anything else. He attended progressive schools, but was expelled from one, after dropping his pants in public on a dare. A sandstone sculpture of a horse gained him entry to the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London. After an unproductive year there, he switched to the East Anglian School of Drawing and Painting. Freud was wild and bohemian from the start and was to become a profound womanizer and the father of at least 14 children, and by some estimates, many more.


In these portraits of his first wife, we see his earlier style. It is more linear and executed with thin layers of paint. His stance toward the subject is certainly direct, but there is a narrative implication which he abandons in his mature work. Here, he captures a deep haunting quality which feels like he has made manifest, in exterior, physical form, the interior state of the sitter. His signature style which is about to evolve, feels quite the opposite, like he works from the outside in. It is characterized, as well, by a thick impasto brush work, and paint application. At one point, he was said to have cleaned his brush after every stroke.
Below are several pictures that pre-date his mature style. There is a quality, I find, of sweetness, and affection.

The portrait on the left, one of Freud’s mistresses, almost feels transitional, as the form is becoming more blocky. On the right is Lady Caroline Blackwood, who was to become his second wife.

The most influential person in Freud’s evolution to his signature, mature style, was Francis Bacon. Bacon’s thick, loose method, where form is created from the brushstroke, not traditional drawing, and his raw intensity, opened the floodgates in Freud. Below is a portrait Bacon did of Freud and a reciprocal, Freud did of Bacon.

From the early 1950′s on, Freud’s universe consisted soley of portraiture and nudes, all done in his studio, and most, requiring tortuously long posing by his subjects. His paint application was a thick impasto, his brushes very stiff, and his palette mostly muted browns and yellows ” Full, saturated colors, have an emotional signifiicnce I want to avoid,” he said.

Nakedness in Freud’s work takes on an almost voyeuristic quality. Reality seems heightened. It’s as if his deep boring into the physical, lays bare all the hidden layers of emotion and identity. All fears and doubts are manifested.” His omnivorous gaze seemed to reveal secrets- aging, ugliness, faults, that people imagine they are hiding from the world.”

Freud was a ruthless taskmaster, in that he insisted on endless, long posing sessions for all his subjects. One painting done in 2007 required 16 months of work. In the 1970′s, he spend 4000 hours on a series of paintings of his mother. Freud formed intense relationships with his subjects and was supposedly a great raconteur and wit. His typical method was to “start drawing in charcoal, then apply paint to a small area of canvas, and gradually work outward from that point.” He would usually start with the head as a way of getting to know the person, then do the rest of the figure and return to the head when he had a deeper sense of the subject.








” 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.”  This is how Freud described the parade of friends and intimates that came to his studio and submitted themselves to the grind of his exploration. As he pushed the limits of his sitter’s physical capacity in his multi-hour, long sessions, their defenses seemed to melt away. It feels to me like the intensity of his will to penetrate to their core sapped them of the will to resist. He dug out what peolpe didn’t know they had inside. ” He always pressed to extremes, carrying on further than one would think necessary and rarely letting anything go before it became disconcerting.”  Here are more of these typical pieces.

Freud did still retain a certain sweetness and affection that showed through in some portraits.

The portrait on the right, above, is of his daughter, Bella.

Above, left is Freud’s first wife, Kitty Garman, and left, his second wife, Lady Caroline Blackwood (the Guinness heiress) for whom he left Kitty. The two were introduced by James Bond author, Ian Fleming’s wife, Ann. Freud’s “rakish” behaviour also included gambling, as well as womanizing. He craved stimulation. He was really something of an old style hedonist. Yet, he always had a deep rapport with his models, who were, most often, friends, family , acquaintances, and other artists.

Above, right is Stephen Spender, the poet, below, two of his more famous subjects, the Queen and David Hockney.

His 2001 portrait of Queen Elizabeth caused a firestorm. Some thought it was bold and truthful, others that her ” five o’clock shadow,” and unidealized treatment was treasonous, or at the very least, scandalous. Freud offered to paint the Queen’s portrait as a gift. There is a long tradition of monarchs being immortalized by the leading artists of the day – think Titian, Velasquez, Holbein, etc. In fact, the Queen has been officially painted by over 100 artists. None, however, like Lucian Freud. The Queen sat for him between May 2000 and December 2001, wearing the diamond crown she wears for important, ceremonial ocassions, at Freud’s specific request. He liked its impression of power. The normal function of the royal portrait is as the ultimate social document, the apotheosis of culture, tradition, elegance and power. It is not usually an opportunity for a brutally realistic treatment of monarch as decaying flesh. Freud called his portraits, ” a kind of truth-telling exercize.” Although some wanted to sent him to the Tower of London, it’s hard not to believe the monarchy knew with whom they were dealing. Although the Palace never released word of the Queen’s reaction, Freud himself, was said to be pleased with the portrait. It is now resides in the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace.

Although he was considered the greatest realist painter alive, by many people and critics, throughout the world, Freud only found wide acclaim in America in 1987, after a landmark exhibition at the Hirschorn Museum in Washington, D.C.

Lucian Freud’s fleshy, raw, uncompromising portraits stripped away the traditonal, social context that had been an integral foundation of portraiture thoughout the history of art . His focus on a deep psychological and physical examination, devoid of historical and social context, was a sea change in both the art of portraiture, itself, and the relationship between artist and subject. He was deconstructing context long before it had ever been conceived of in literature, and I would argue, in a much more artistically meaningful  and profound way. The light of honesty and truth in art has rarely shown so brightly as in the work of Lucian Freud.

For those who might be in London, there is a Freud retrospective opening at the National Portrait Gallery, February, 9th.

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31 Comments on "Lucian Freud; The Searing Power of Portaiture"

  1. Kathy says:

    I never get tired of looking at his work, always something new to see in each painting. His brushstrokes are genius. I would love to see that retrospective in London. Great post.

    • David Leeds says:

      Thanks. I agree about both looking at his work and going to London. I remember being blown away, only last year, at the National Portrait Gallery, just by their permanent collection of his work.

  2. Helen says:

    You have written a very good description of his work. It speaks of the complexity and the simplicity of his work. Lots of layers there. Wonderful painter… who lived life on his terms. I wonder if any of his many offspring inherited his talent gene?

    • David Leeds says:

      That’s an interesting question, Helen. I’ll do some research and get back to you.

    • Kathy says:

      I find that an interesting observation, the “living life on his terms” and see that often with artists throughout history. I would think that giving yourself permission to do that, would also free up lots of creativity and “in the box” thinking that we’re all surrounded with, when we adhere to the normal confines of society. He seemed to live without a sense of guilt. I do wonder what his grandfather would have thought of all of it?

      • Helen says:

        My opinion is that is grandfather would have been immensely proud of him for his depth of observation of the human condition, particularly in the flesh! There is a sense of abandonment in the work but also a respect for composition, balance and technique. This is the enigma of his work…and why I like it. It is a paradox, in a way. It disturbs and soothes at the same time. To me, that is a successful painter who can evoke so many questions and feelings.

  3. sulky kitten says:

    I remember that portrait of the Queen and the controversy surrounding it. I thought she looked quite masculine in it. However, now I have noticed over the years that Her Majesty is simply not a particularly feminine woman in relation to her role as monarch, (not a criticism – just an observation) Perhaps this is what Freud saw more clearly than anyone else and chose to portray. I remember reading that one of his daughters (Lucy,I think) is an artist, he hadn’t seen her since she was a child and they had a reconciliation of sorts on his deathbed. Very interesting, David,

    • David Leeds says:

      Lucy, I believe, is an artist herself. I started looking into the “illegitimate” children.
      Lucian was a real cad, and not a “good actor” as far as being a parent. His mistress before Lady Blackwell, with whom he had four children, and with whom he took up again after his divorce, is a case in point. He completely ignored them even as he was hanging out and staying over, and she let it go on for quite a while, the second time, as well, before moving away. I wonder what his grandfather would have made of his pathology?

  4. Susan Tiner says:

    Wonderful news that we’ll be able to see this retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery while in London March 1-9!

    Like Kathy, I never get tired of looking at his portraits, but would not have wanted to be one of his subjects.

    Thank you for this interesting, informative post.

  5. david, this is a wonderful post. that you for putting this together,and so well done. i love his earlier portraits. to me they also show a gentleness . i love portraits and find so much beauty in the human face. his early works show so much feeling thats what i love about them.

    • David Leeds says:

      His works certainly do show a sweetness, that disappears later. The thing I find with his work, is that no matter how grotesque an image may be, I can’t stop looking. It’s as if i find myself and all my warts standing in for all of his subjects. Strange, but powerful.

  6. yes his later works are very powerful i agree with that,but i still love the gentleness and beauty that comes through his early works.

  7. Tabitha says:

    I think he was a fascinating character who accepted his utter selfishness as the necessary price of his genius. I really want to get down to the exhibition.

    • David Leeds says:

      Tabitha, I think his complete surrender to his own needs and primacy, is reflected in his method of almost, “visual attack’ on his subjects. It’s as if they really don’t exist outside of their being studied by him. He lives in a one way ontological universe.

  8. This is a great introduction into the work of Lucien Freud. I had seen some of his work before, the portrait of Queen Elizabeth for one. But it is very powerful to see so many of his works all together. I have to admit that for me some of them are difficult to look at, but that is probably what he was after. He was pushing reality to the limit I guess, and he came up with some very powerful images. He has always reminded me of Francis Bacon and now I can see why after reading your post. Thanks for such an interesting profile of this important artist.

    • David Leeds says:

      I agree with you, Sunday, some are very hard to look at. But, as I said above, I find something hypnotic and transfixing about them. In person, I find I just can’t look away and am drawn into them. What a combination, Bacon and Freud. it says something important the culture that gave birth to them during the second part of the 20th century.

  9. Ulf Skei says:

    I do appreciate this. Was in London last summer and saw some interesting work there, not this amount, though!
    Great painter, interesting person. Great blog for some saturday morning reading!

    • David Leeds says:

      Thanks Ulf. I envy your closeness to all the great European cities and museums.
      I would so love to be able to pop around, regularly to them all. Enjoy the java and the jazz this weekend. Was just listening to some Dexter Gordon I hadn’t heard for a long time.

  10. thankyou david for this wonderfull post! i really apreciate it!

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Sculptor, painter, poet. Currently living in Los Angeles and Martha's Vineyard