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

  1. Tabitha says:

    Just watched the documentary on BBC 4, I am now even more fascinated by him, I would have loved to have met him and sat for him and picked my way through the weave and warf of his mind.
    What do you think of digital painting? i have just fallen in love with a portrait but I was somewhat disappointed by the fact that it’s digital – there is something about the sturm and drang of thick paint strokes on a canvas that can’t be duplicated.

  2. David Leeds says:

    Tabitha, I’m not a fan of digital painting. I like to feel the presence of the human hand, and I think you can always feel its absence. But, I do absolutely agree that posing for him would have been a great experience. Especially if you got to keep the result.

  3. Curator says:

    I love the utter corpulent mottled vulgarity of his nudes. The extremely long sittings forced his models to abandon their bodies to the arms of Morpheus, and not adopt a pose: And the large brush strokes force us, the unwelcome interloper, to stand back so as not to wake them from their slumber. His use of light was sublime. The exhibition is superb.

  4. Helpful information. Lucky me I found your website unintentionally, and I’m shocked why this coincidence didn’t took place in advance! I bookmarked it.

  5. Thank you for this post David, from which I learn a lot. In the paintings of Lucian
    Freud I also see compassion for human beeings in a different way of observing human beauty.

  6. It’s the first time I saw this post, thank you for sharing this. I love the portraits of Lucian Freud.

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