This was the case, apparently, even under the most tender of circumstances, such as those behind Freud’s Girl With a White Dog (1950–52). The portrait is the last Freud would paint of his first wife, Kitty Garman. In it, Kitty’s chin, nipple, and breast appear defiant and vulnerable, each catching the pallid light from a nearby window. The white whippet on Kitty’s lap appears to offer her the companionship that her husband failed to provide over their four-year marriage. The dog’s eyes are raised, perhaps appraising Freud as he stood behind the canvas.
Freud explained to Feaver that in painting Girl With a White Dog, he captured “something that neither [he nor Kitty] were aware of before”—certain truths, including sadness and anger. His wife was pregnant in a “last bid,” as she admitted to Feaver years later, “to keep Lucian.” Feaver writes of the portrait: “Expressive in its restraint, the painting is an exposure.” According to Annie Freud, the couple’s daughter, Kitty remained “very very proud of this painting”—proud of her boldness and fragility, and of her depiction as “a real person.”
But if Freud succeeded here, his myopia would seemingly prevent him from seeing others, such as Celia Paul, with the same fullness. In Painter and Model (1986), for instance, Freud at last portrays Paul as the artist she is. And yet her delicate features, so clear in Freud’s earlier works, have been replaced with austerely set hair and a severe jawline. If this painting was an exposure, it only exposed, as Smith pointed out, Freud’s pernicious “blind spot”: his inability to see that in this portrait he made the idea of feminine artistry and feminine beauty mutually exclusive.
The personal stakes surrounding Freud’s paintings were not always so high, but the goal of hyper-reality remained constant. Finished the same year as Girl With a White Dog, Freud’s Francis Bacon is arresting in its suggestion of panoramic corporeality, despite it being only a headshot. An elegiac energy roves clockwise around Bacon’s face, which Feaver describes as “close, guarded, troubled, solitary really, and manifestly private.” The portrait exemplified what Freud’s second wife, Caroline Blackwood, called his “ability to make the people and objects that come under his scrutiny seem more themselves, and more like themselves, than they have been—or will be.”
I can see now that it is this le plus quality that appealed to me about Freud’s Benefits Supervisor Sleeping. It helps, as an adult, to watch videos of Sue Tilly describe her experience sitting for Freud as “absolutely amazing.” Her delight infuses my delight. Looking again at the painting, you notice that Tilly’s eyes aren’t just closed; they’re collapsed into their sockets. Her lips are more than shut; they’re thoroughly sealed. Her body is not just limp, but also languid, as if its curled position is the sole shape it has ever taken. I, in turn, didn’t want just to be asleep; I wanted to be asleep like Tilly—asleep inimitably.
Perhaps this quality was what Freud was looking for when he impoliticly urged his students toward naked self-portraits. What he wanted was for his students to see themselves as more than themselves—to be completely revealed, to “put in everything,” and, maybe, in the process, to find a certain truth. Determining exactly whose truth is exposed, however, can be a more complicated picture.