The Work of Lucian Freud - Paint as Flesh


Lucian Freud Reflection
“I paint what I see, not what you want me to see.” Lucian Freud’s pursuit of this ideal led him to create some of the most recognizable and astonishing images of the human form ever painted. He did this using Winsor & Newton Artists’ Oil Colour - used tubes can be seen amongst the detritus in photographs and paintings of his studio. Infact his passion for the brand once led him to order more than a hundred tubes of his favourite Flake White from Winsor and Newton over fears that the colour might be removed from sale.

For the late art critic Robert Hughes, the way Freud used the paint to capture the stillness of his sitter and the attention of his audience was at the heart of his exceptional talent: “Every inch of the surface has to be won, must be argued through, bears the traces of curiosity and inquisition - above all, takes nothing for granted and demands active engagement from the viewer as its right.”

 Lucian Freud, Reflection (Self-Portrait),
1985, oil on canvas, 56x51 cm

Escape To A New Life

Lucian Freud was born in Berlin in 1922. He was the grandson of the founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud and, like him, escaped Nazi persecution by coming to London. Freud went to Bryanston School where he joined the oil painting club but was expelled because of disruptive behaviour. He is rumoured to have run a pack of hunting hounds through the school during matins, but art critic and Freud’s friend William Feaver believes it was for dropping his trousers on a Bournemouth street. As one does ! A brief spell at the Central School of Art in London was followed by a more successful period at Cedric Morris’ East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing. In 1944 he had his first one man show at Lefevre Gallery in London.

At the start of his career Freud built a reputation for drawing but soon moved on to painting with, initially, mixed results. An early painting, ‘Landscape with Birds’ (1940), was made using enamel paints because he had heard Picasso used the same material. Freud’s painting curdled but it prompted him to remark, “Learning to paint is literally learning to use paint.”

 Lucian Freud, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, 1995,
oil on canvas, 151.3x219 cm
A White That Was Right

Moving on to oils, Freud, as a young painter, would sit at the easel and paint, wet on wet, using small sable brushes, creating what the critic John Berger called, ‘a painstaking naturalism.’ From the 1950s he began to work in portraiture, often nudes, to the almost complete exclusion of everything else.

Abandoning sable brushes in favour of hog’s hair, which he loaded with paint, Freud stood up at the easel and developed a looser, expressive style.

He also changed his paints. While working as a visiting lecturer at The Slade he was introduced to Cremnitz White, a paint so dense as to be sculptural. Freud decided this would be good to paint flesh tones, and lead whites became a mainstay of his palette. Cremnitz White is basic lead carbonate. Flake White is lead carbonate with some zinc oxide.

 Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, 1976,
oil on canvas, 26.5x40 cm
The Artist And His Model

Freud worked exclusively from life, usually using a nude model posed on his studio’s threadbare furnishings or against piles of painter’s rags. He would start with a rough charcoal sketch on the canvas, and then lay in the paint, working from the head outwards. Occasionally he would extend the canvas by gluing on extra strips to accommodate the composition. His models were friends, lovers, relatives and occasionally his own children. Well known sitters include David Hockney, Francis Bacon, Kate Moss and a Royal Portrait of Her Majesty The Queen.

 Lucian Freud, Standing by the Rags, 1988-89,
oil on canvas, 66.5x54.5 cm
Turbulent Personal Life

Some critics, including David Sylvester, have wondered whether Freud’s turbulent personal life came to influence his depiction of the human form, especially the female form, with a forensic harshness. Freud is known to have fathered fourteen children from his first wife and various mistresses, and was widely regarded as a charming womanizer. Some have also questioned the merciless quality of his take on human flesh and the dull eyes of his sitters.

However, Freud’s maxim “I paint what I see, not what people want to see” acts as a counterpoint. “The picture in order to move us must never merely remind us of life, but must acquire a life of its own, precisely in order to reflect life.” Whatever the arguments, collectors and galleries couldn’t get enough of him, certainly towards the end of his life – his painting ‘Benefits Supervisor Sleeping’ of ‘Big’ Sue Tilley, an official at the DHSS, sold for $33.6 million which at the time was a record for a living artist.  

Freud it seems will continue to split opinion for many years to come. As with all great artists if you want to gain some understanding of them look and look again at their work. As Robert Hughes notes: “Other depictive artists should look at Freud and either despair or get inspired.” So why not get inspired.

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**Lucian Freud, ‘Thoughts on Painting’. Encounter, July 1954


William Feaver Lucian Freud. Exh. cat. London, Tate Britain, 2002
Robert Hughes ‘The Master At Work.’ The Guardian, April 2004

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