Lucian Freud - Biography and Legacy
Biography of Lucian Freud
Childhood and Education
Lucian Freud was born into an artistic middle-class Jewish family. His father Ernst was an architect, his mother Lucie Brasch studied art history, and his grandfather was the paradigm-shifting psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. In 1933, Freud and his family left Berlin to escape Hitler and settled in London.
Freud began making art - and exhibiting it - at a very early age. In 1938 one of his drawings was selected for a show of art by children at Peggy Guggenheim's London gallery. Though the artist was sixteen at the time, the drawing was from 1930, when Freud had been eight.
In his mid-teen years, Freud became a friend (and possibly had a romantic relationship) with the poet Stephen Splender. The two remained in touch for a number of years, and it is probably through this acquaintance that Freud was introduced to a circle of male (and mostly bisexual) poets, artists, and teachers that was also responsible for sustaining a group of emerging artists throughout the war years. Through these circles Freud met his greatest friend and rival Francis Bacon. More on these early years and relationship with Bacon is beautifully described in Sebastian Smee's book "The Art of Rivalry".
Despite early talent, his unruly behavior resulted in him being forced out of multiple schools; once for dropping his pants in a public street. Serious art training began for Freud in 1939 when he enrolled in the East Anglican School of Painting and Drawing in Essex. In 1941 after a brief three months spent in the Merchant Navy, Freud finished his studies and by 1943 he had begun to paint seriously and created one of his first important paintings, The Painter's Room.
A brief period spent in Europe helped to influence Freud's work, in part when he befriended Pablo Picasso and Alberto Giacometti while in Paris in 1946. Once home in London, he joined the staff of the Slade School of Art and began exhibiting in London galleries.
Early on Freud established a lifestyle and artistic habits that he would continue throughout his career. He married the beautiful and well-connected Kitty Garman, the daughter of painter Jacob Epstein, but his infidelities quickly dissolved their marriage. Next was Guinness heiress Lady Caroline Hamilton Temple Blackwood, whom he glimpsed at her coming out party and formally met at a gathering hosted by Ann Fleming, wife of author Ian Fleming. Much to the disapproval of her parents, the relationship began while Freud was still married.
While charming, Freud had a volatile temper. He had a great intensity towards his work, which he put above all else; a factor along with his habitual infidelity that led to the failure of his many romantic relationships. In fact, there are reports of Freud being an absolutely vile misogynist: Blackwood claimed that he slept with her teenage daughter, his women are often depicted as de-humanized speciments, he is rumored to have fathered many, many children (he acknowledged fourteen), and overall treating his many sexual partners in horrible ways.
Regardless, Freud was a popular personality and drew attention to himself wherever he went with his signature accoutrement/travel companion, a pet hawk, poised on his wrist or shoulder. The few hours a day he wasn't painting he spent dining, gambling (which is often credited as one of his top self-destructive traits), and lounging in the company of the fashionable British aristocrats, socialites, and artists, including fellow painter Francis Bacon, with which he had a great deal in common. The two greatly influenced each other until a falling out ended their friendship.
Portraiture soon became the main subject of Freud's work. The process of sitting for a portrait by Freud was not an easy one and it often took months of multiple hour sittings for the artist to be satisfied. The great British painter David Hockney claimed to have sat for a portrait for Freud for hundreds of hours over many months, while reciprocaly, Freud sat for two afternoons (as described by critic and writer Julian Barnes.)
Despite a good relationship with his grandfather when Lucian Freud was young, and even later, sometimes choosing to wear Sigmund's coat when he was out in London, the artist attempted to avoid any further connection to the famous psychiatrist in interviews about his work, dismissing the psychoanalytic method and denying that it had any connection with his art.
By his own admission, Freud was an often absentee father. Many of his children realized that the best way to connect with him was through his art, so they posed for him as they got older, and had the patience to sit for as long as the exhausting sessions demanded.
Freud's approach to figuration, obsessive in its attempts to capture every detail and flaw, often led to the frustration of the sitter and Freud himself. His work matured in conjunction with the tools he experimented with in order to lessen this frustration, and a key technical breakthrough in mid-career hinged on a switch to stiffer hog-hair brushes that allowed him to apply paint more broadly, as well as the decision to stand while he worked. Freud stated, "My eyes were completely going mad, sitting down and not being able to move. Small brushes, fine canvas. Sitting down used to drive me more and more agitated. I felt I wanted to free myself from this way of working...." While sable brushes had applied the paint lightly, Freud's switch to a different kind of brush, and his standing up at his easel resulted in significant changes in technique and effect. By the 1960s his works were more painterly and layered, with heavier, freer strokes. It was also at that time that Freud began to focus on what he called "naked portraits", detailed nudes that were almost always unflattering. His depictions of his children remain the most controversial.
The late 1980s brought recognition on an international level. This was in part due to a powerful and eye-opening 1987 four-country retrospective. As a result he was internationally represented by the American art dealer William Acquavella. Later portraits by Freud include many famous subjects such as artist David Hockney, art critic Martin Gayford, and even the British Queen Elizabeth II. In addition to painting on a large scale, near the end of his career Freud created many etchings, a process that he had also focused on during his early years as a student and artist.
Freud's reputation with women did not waver with age; a fact confirmed when in 2002 the British magazine Tatler listed the octogenarian as the second most eligible bachelor in the nation. Supermodel Kate Moss expressed her desire to meet him, resulting in a friendship and the artist painting her portrait. In 2004 the eighty-two year old artist created two portraits of his thirty-two year old art student girlfriend Alexandra Williams-Wynn, including The Painter Surprised by a Naked Admirer (2004-05) depicting her naked, and wrapped around the legs of the clothed artist at work in his studio.
Freud never relaxed his intense, obsessive painting practice. In referring to his decades-long routine of working all morning, breaking in the afternoon, and then painting again all evening, the artist stated, "I work every day and night. I don't do anything else. There is no point otherwise." Freud continued to work up to his death from bladder cancer at eighty-eight years old.
The Legacy of Lucian Freud
Freud's challenges to the conventions of portraiture have inspired legions of figurative painters. The alternate model for male representation established by his groundbreaking series of portraits of the performance artist Leigh Bowery laid the groundwork for other socially transgressive figurative painters, among them John Currin and Eric Fischl. The impact of Freud's raw and unapologetic approach to the nude lives on in the work of Jenny Saville, Elizabeth Peyton and Luc Tuymans.