The Conundrum of Lucian Freud’s Portraits

How to assess an artist who was ruthless—and revealing—in work and life

Jane Bown / Camera Press / Redux

“You’ll be dead very soon and I want you to do naked self-portraits and put in everything you feel is relevant to your life and how you think about yourself … Try and make it the most revealing, telling, and believable object … Make a visual statement and forget your inhibitions and be over the top. Take your clothes off and paint yourself. Just once.”

According to Lucian Freud, this is a talk he addressed to students of a life-painting course at the Norwich School of Art in 1964. The episode is only briefly described at the end of William Feaver’s first volume of the artist’s biography—The Lives of Lucian Freud: The Restless Years, 1922-1968—yet it is illustrative of Freud as both person and painter. Freud was notoriously impassioned (he had at least 14 children), utterly against convention, ruthless in his portrayal of self and subject, and possessed of a lifelong goal, as he put it, to “shock and amaze.” These traits were in stark contrast to his students at Norwich, in whom he saw an “innate timidity of a very agreeable kind but the antithesis, really, to the absolute cheek of making art. So I thought the best thing I can make them do to reveal themselves is naked self-portraits.” It turns out Freud got “bad receptions from one or two parents” and there were calls “to alert the police.” The idea didn’t quite pan out.

The insight one might glean from the Norwich anecdote—Freud’s desire to capture more than just what meets the eye—was also something I sensed as a child. Before I knew who the artist was, I was captivated by what some consider his most famous piece. Directly across from the maroon love seat in my father’s apartment, there hangs a framed picture of a naked, plump woman curled up and asleep on a couch. Her right hand cups her breast with serene detachment, as if it’s a pillow, while her left hand grips the sofa’s back, which seems to steady her through her dreamscape.

Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, 1995 (Lucian Freud Archive)

I’d assemble myself on the love seat to mimic her position, plugging my left foot snugly between the cushions. I thought if I got it right, I, too, could enter such a pristine state of rest. (Alas, I remain a noisy mouth-breathing stomach-sleeper.) Only later did I learn that this was a reproduction of a Lucian Freud work titled Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995). The portrait—of a real-life woman named Sue Tilly—would sell for $33.6 million in 2008; it was, at the time, the most expensive painting by a living artist to be sold at auction. Freud’s drive to reveal, even if it didn’t quite take over in Norwich, gained him an audience, my young self included.

The years that Feaver covers start with Freud’s birth (1922) and end when the artist is in his mid-40s, long before he paints Tilly. The biography can, in part, be read as a condensed transcript of Freud’s and Feaver’s phone calls, which took place almost daily over several decades—with the former’s number always changing and the latter always the one to answer the call. The narrative voice, then, is often Freud’s own, with Feaver’s insights woven in. The reader learns how the artist spent these years: gallivanting around Europe, painting and partying and engaging in, as Feaver puts it, “various passions.” (The phrase perhaps hints at Freud’s propensity for turning muses into lovers, a dynamic that’s recently been explored with acute specificity by Zadie Smith, among others.) At the same time, Freud was forming for himself an aesthetic doctrine that would remain conceptually intact until his death.

This doctrine first took shape at a lecture he gave at Oxford in May 1953 and was eventually published as “Some Thoughts on Painting.” It begins: “My object in painting pictures is to try and move the senses by giving an intensification of reality.” (Shortly before Freud’s death, the art historian John Richardson would neatly sum up this notion by calling Freud’s early paintings “more real than the real thing.”) Viewers can see inklings of this extra-essenced style in Hospital Ward (1941), a work infused with the artist’s own experience in the British Merchant Navy at age 19. Freud brings the dizziness of being at sea to bear on this painting of a boy in a hospital: An undulating brush makes waves appear lodged in his face, alluding to his particular form of war-weariness. The result is a portrait that reflects the boy’s reality, as well as the sensory impact of those memories still lingering within him.

The idea that such free association might intensify a piece of art would continue to preoccupy Freud. More than a decade after Hospital Ward, in “Some Thoughts,” the artist would explain that to achieve such an effect, a painter “must give a completely free rein to any feelings or sensations he may have and reject nothing to which he is naturally drawn.” Freud goes on to invert the intuitive: In the pursuit of art, self-indulgence is not a luxury but, in fact, discipline.

The painter’s critics tend to note the way these merciless aesthetic precepts bled into Freud’s personal life, which involved endless and usually overlapping sexual affairs—often with his young, female sitters—and only intermittent attention paid to certain of his children. On this front, Feaver doesn’t quite take his subject to task; instead he leaves his subtle imbrication of anecdotes and analyses up for interpretation. For a more personal perspective, readers might try Celia Paul’s new memoir Self-Portrait, in which the artist chronicles, in part, her time modeling for Freud and the devastation his objectification and philandering inflicted: “I felt exposed and hated the feeling,” she recalls of her time sitting for Freud. “I cried throughout these sessions.”

Paul didn’t meet Freud until she was his student at the Slade School of Fine Art in 1978, a decade after the years Feaver covers in this first volume, and one wonders what his second volume will make of her account (or of any other accounts from his muses, especially given the extent to which the age and power disparities would widen). If Feaver’s approach in this first volume continues into his second, it’s likely that not much will be made of it at all. While discussing the biography in a recent BBC interview, Feaver is asked what Freud was like “behind closed doors.” Feaver responded, in part, that over their long relationship, he noticed the “wiles” Freud tried with young women were the same “wiles” the artist brought to painting, to horses, to dogs, to friends and great art. “You can’t see [Freud] as a predator, precisely,” Feaver noted, “except that he was a predator of life in a most wonderfully wide-ranging way.”

I wonder if Paul would have qualms about this characterization. While she “does not scorn the idea that gratitude can exist between muse and artist,” as Smith put it, Paul nevertheless describes Freud’s insistent stroking of her throat; his insinuations that a muse must yield completely to the artist (“He spoke admiringly to me,” she writes, “of Gwen John, who had stopped painting when she was most passionately involved with Rodin, so that she could give herself fully to the experience”); and his eerie fondness for her sadness. In contrast, the idea of complicity permeates Feaver’s book, particularly in his detailing of how Freud’s friends, sitters, and kin—rather than find him predatory—largely seemed to understand the artist’s project. For the most part, they were eager to be memorialized in, as Feaver writes, “paintings that held true.”

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.