The Self-Portraits of Lucian Freud

For the first time, Lucian Freud’s self-portraits have been united for one extraordinary exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. With a career spanning almost 70 years, the exhibition explores Freud’s development as a painter from his earliest portrait of 1939, to his final one painted 64 years later. Displayed in chronological order, the self-portraits create a visual timeline of Freud’s appearance, providing the perfect opportunity for the Royal Academy to discover the man behind the canvas.

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Lucian Shaving – David Dawson 2006

Lucian Michael Freud was born in Berlin on 8th December 1922. Initially, he grew up in Germany with his parents, Lucie and Ernst Freud (1892-1970) and his brothers Stephan and Clement. In 1933, the family fled to the United Kingdom to escape Nazi Germany and were later joined by Lucian’s famous paternal grandfather, the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856-1939).

The Freud family settled in St John’s Wood, London, however, the boys attended Dartington Hall School in Devon. Lucian later attended Bryanston School in Dorset, however, was expelled after a year due to disruptive behaviour. After this, Freud attended a few art colleges in London and was encouraged by his mother to display some of his artwork at an exhibition of children’s drawing at London’s Guggenheim Jeune Gallery in 1938.

From 1939 until 1942, Freud attended the Welsh painter Cedric Morris’ (1889-1982) East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing in Suffolk. Whilst there, Freud became determined to have a career as a painter and produced his first self-portrait. His art education was briefly disrupted when he was called up to serve as a merchant seaman in an Atlantic convoy, however, he was invalided out of service after a few months.

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Man with a Feather, 1942

Freud destroyed many of his self-portraits but, fortunately, over 50 remain, including one of his early works Man with a Feather (1943). This was painted after finishing his art education, which concluded with a year at Goldsmith’s College in London. This painting was exhibited with a selection of Freud’s works at his first solo exhibition at Lefevre Gallery, London in 1944. The three-quarter length portrait shows Freud holding a white feather, which he had been given by his first serious girlfriend, Lorna Wishart (1911-2000). Incidentally, Freud went on to marry Lorna’s niece Kitty (d.2011), who was the daughter of the sculptor Jacob Epstein (1880-1959).

Comparing the early self-portraits with his later works, Freud was initially influenced by German Expressionism and occasionally surrealism. After the war, Freud developed a precise linear style using muted colours and elongated brushstrokes. His drawings were sharp and graphic, produced by a variety of ink, crayon and pencil.

Man with a Thistle (Self-portrait) is an example of Freud’s linear style painting. This particular self-portrait was produced during a five-month stay on the Greek island of Paros. The vertical and horizontal lines are severe and dominate the painting, whilst the image of himself is relegated to the background.

During the 1940s, Freud tended to prefer drawing over painting, therefore, the majority of his early self-portraits were produced in pencil and pen. Startled Man, for example, was drawn with conté crayon and pencil. The outcome looks similar to the result of etching, and the facial expression is not too dissimilar to the series of experimental self-portrait etchings by the Dutch artist Rembrandt (1606-69).

Other examples of Freud’s drawings include Man at Night and Self-Portrait as Actaeon. Both of these outcomes must have taken an exceedingly long time since the drawing is made up of tiny markings. Freud used dots and dashes to produce the tones, shadows and outlines, leaving the lighter areas blank. This works particularly well in Man at Night, which reveals the artist lit up from one side by an artificial light source.

Self-Portrait as Actaeon was originally intended as an illustration for a book of Greek myths. Unfortunately, the book was rejected by the publisher, however, the illustrations were later published in a magazine. Possibly inspired by Titian’s (1488-1576) Diana and Actaeon, which now hangs in the National Gallery in London, Freud depicted himself as Actaeon, a famous Theban hero, who was turned into a stag after accidentally coming across the goddess Diana bathing.

“People thought and said and wrote that my paintings were linear and defined by drawing. I’ve never been that affected by writing, but I thought if that’s all true, I must stop.”

Around the mid-1950s, Freud transitioned from drawing to painting and began to approach his artwork differently. For years, Freud used small canvases that he could fit on his lap, however, he began to find this rather restrictive and decided to paint at an easel instead. Whilst he continued to produce the occasional small painting, Freud started working on a much larger scale.

Since his return from Greece, Freud had made London his permanent home and was later characterised as a figurative painter in the “School of London”. Amongst this group of artists were R.B. Kitaj (1932-2007), Frank Auerbach (b.1931) and Francis Bacon (1909-92), the latter being a great influence on Freud. Bacon tended to use hog’s hair brushes, which allowed him to handle a heavier load of paint than Freud’s sable-hair brushes. After swapping to hog’s hair brushes, Freud’s style became vastly different from his earlier work. Whilst the handling of the paint created more texture on the canvas, the portraits were closer to reality than his flat, graphic versions.

When the focus was purely on the body, Freud used his new style of painting. The thicker brushes and paint helped him to concentrate on the texture and colour of flesh. Unlike his graphic drawing style that he eventually stopped using, Freud retained this new style for the rest of his life, as can be seen when comparing his work from the 1950s with a self-portrait painted in 1978. Self-Portrait with a Black Eye was painted immediately after an argument with a taxi driver that evidently turned physical. Intrigued by the changes in colour and shape caused by the bruising and swelling, Freud was keen to capture it on canvas.

Although he continued to use hog’s hair brushes for the rest of his artistic career, it was not the only style of painting Freud developed. During the 1960s, Freud experimented with watercolours, which resulted in a flatter colour than the thick oil paint. By using this medium, Freud retained a little of his earlier linearity but the colour washes reduced the harshness of the lines. Freud replicated this style in oil paint, particularly when there was more to a painting than human flesh. An example of this is Hotel Bedroom, which combines his old style with a softer brushstroke.

Hotel Bedroom includes a self-portrait of Freud who is standing behind a bed in which his wife is lying. This is not a portrait of Kitty, who Freud divorced in 1952, but his second wife Lady Caroline Blackwood (1931-96) who he married in 1953. Unfortunately, their marriage only lasted four years and a sense of estrangement can already be felt in this artwork, which was painted in 1954. Freud did not marry again after his second divorce, however, it is rumoured that he fathered as many as 40 children, however, only 14 have been officially identified as his – two from his first marriage and 12 by various mistresses.

Throughout his career, Freud painted portraits of other people, including his children. The first time his children appeared in his work, however, was at the bottom of a self-portrait, Reflection with Two Children. Rose and Ali are positioned in front of a gigantic mirror, producing a slightly surreal effect, since they do not have any reflection. The painting was inspired by a picture Freud had seen in a book, however, it also tells us a little about Freud’s painting process.

When creating self-portraits, Freud preferred to paint his likeness from mirrors rather than photographs. He often left mirrors lying at various angles in his studio in the hopes that it would produce an interesting perspective. For Reflection with Two Children, Freud placed the mirror directly on the floor and painted himself peering into it from above. Unlike his previous self-portraits, Freud included the mirror’s frame in the painting.

Freud may have taken inspiration from past painters who included mirrors in their work, for example, Velázquez (1599-1660) and Van Eyck (d.1441). For a while, Freud continued to include mirrors in his work, for example, Interior with Plant, Reflection Listening in which he included a small self-portrait behind an enormous houseplant. Freud also used a range of different sized mirrors of which Interior with Hand Mirror (Self-portrait) is an appropriate example. Slightly different from his usual style of work, the tiny reflection resembles Freud’s usual method of depicting flesh, however, the rest of the painting feels washed-out and rushed.

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Two Irish Men in W11, 1984/5

“My work is purely autobiographical. It’s about myself and my surroundings … I work from the people that interest me and that I care about and think about in rooms that I live and know.”

By the mid-60s, Freud was focused on full-length portraits, which continued to show his ability to convey the luminous texture of the human flesh. Many of these portraits were of nudes, including paintings of his children, which unsettled many viewers. Rather than portraying men and women in the tradition of Renaissance artists, Freud was brutally honest, revealing all parts of the human anatomy.

Not all Freud’s full-length portraits involved nudity, for instance, Two Irish Men in W11 in which the men are fully clothed. The unnamed men were painted in one of Freud’s London studios. Throughout his career, Freud had studios in Paddington, Notting Hill and Holland Park, which were decked out with battered sofas, bare walls and wooden floors. Some critics claim these downtrodden environments added to the psychology of Freud’s work, evidencing the influence of his grandfather.

Although the main focus of the portraits was on the sitter, Freud often managed to subtly include himself in the painting. Sometimes a glimpse of his reflection can be seen in a mirror or, in the case of Two Irish Men in W11, unfinished self-portraits sit on the floor against the wall. Oftentimes these glimpses go unnoticed unless pointed out.

Freud painted portraits of his friends and fellow artists, including Auerbach and Bacon. Sometimes the sitter was clothed and other times naked, often sprawled across a bed or on the floor. He did not seek out attractive models for his nudes but painted people of all shapes and sizes, including the very large Sue Tilley (b. 1957), nicknamed Big Sue. Despite going against conventional beauty, the painting sold for $33.6 million in 2008. His most frequent sitter was his friend David Dawson, however, he also painted a few well-known names, such as Kate Moss (b.1974) and the Queen (b.1926), the latter obviously fully clothed.

Freud painted his first nude self-portrait at the age of 70, using thick layers of paint to draw attention to his ageing body. It took him several months to complete and Freud was never completely happy with the result. “I couldn’t scrap it,” he said, “because I would be doing away with myself.”

As well as the full length nude, Freud continued to produce self-portraits, for example, close-ups of his head and shoulders. Again, he applied thick paint to the canvas to reveal the lines on his ageing face as well as the shadows caused by the artificial lighting in his studio.

Towards the end of his career, Freud rekindled his passion for lines by producing etchings, which he had briefly experimented with during the 1940s. Freud approached his etchings in a similar manner to painting, propping the copper plate upright on his easel. Over weeks and months, he etched into the metal, working heavily on the backgrounds to make it darker than the subject of the etching. Freud only produced one etched self-portrait, which shows up all the wrinkles and imperfections of his 74-year-old face. Due to the overworking of the stylus on the metal plate, the final print is rather dark, almost as if the elderly man is fading into the background.

In 1996, 27 of Freud’s paintings and 13 etchings were displayed at the Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal, Cumbria. This was a particularly major exhibition for the artist and it was followed by an exhibition of his early works at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. In 2002, Tate Britain held a large retrospective of Freud’s work, however, it has taken until 2019, eight years after Freud’s death, for the first exhibition of his self-portraits to be held.

Lucian Freud died on 20th July 2011 and was buried by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams (b.1950), at Highgate Cemetry. Freud was an extremely private man, which is why the majority of his paintings are of friends and family. No doubt the number of self-portraits indicate Freud prefered his own company to others. His self-portraits reveal his change in artistic techniques but also provide an insight into his psyche. Never smiling, it is possible Freud did not like what he saw, suggesting he did not have the greatest relationship with himself. The fact he destroyed many of his self-portraits is also indicative of this.

Lucian Freud: The Self-portraits does not contain any “wow-factor” paintings, however, it allows visitors to learn and understand the painter, who until now has just been a well-known name. Living in the shadow of his grandfather, Freud made a name for himself as a painter, shocking people with nudity and unpolished human flesh, and yet, we learn he was a private individual, vastly contrasting with the opinions of the public and critics.

Lucian Freud: The Self-portraits is open at the Royal Academy of Arts until 26th January 2020. Tickets are £18 and it is advisable to book a timed entry in advance. Although under 16s can visit for free, some paintings are unsuitable for young visitors.