Realist painter whose unflattering, fleshy portraits divided critics and put him among the great artists of the age
Lucian Freud, OM, who died last Wednesday aged 88, was the most celebrated British figurative painter of the late 20th century.
Freud was thought of primarily as a painter of portraits, but though his subjects were often well-known people, he was no society portraitist in the manner of Sargent or Boldini. His purpose was not to flatter, and the starkness of his images, many of them highly detailed nudes, have few precedents in the art of the human form.
So early was Freud's reputation established -- while he was still a teenager -- that for almost all of his career he was able to paint on his own terms, and only what he was interested in. "My work," he said, in a remark at once typically truthful and egotistic, "is purely autobiographical. It's about myself and my surroundings."
The results of this subjective outlook divided both the critics and the public. For many, Freud was a master of capturing the quintessence of a sitter, his paintings being not like people but of people.
Others found the stern intensity of Freud's scrutiny unsettling and too uniform, thinking his paintings revealed not their subjects but his view of humanity. His pictures were said not to celebrate the differences between individuals, but their melancholy similarities -- an opinion reinforced by the anonymous titles Freud gave many of his works.
The counterpart to Freud's determination to make use of his life in his work was that his life itself became something of an exhibition. There was a quasi-theatrical streak in his personality and, though it was exaggerated by speculation, he gained a reputation as a rake, a snob and a Lothario.
Freud consorted with both high and low society. He had many beautiful and well-born lovers, some of whom sat for him, while perhaps his most celebrated model was a grossly fat homosexual nightclub dancer, Leigh Bowery; indeed, Freud painted few men who were not homosexual, saying that he admired their courage.
Entertaining though gossip about his life was, it shed little light on Freud's work, and detracted from the one constant in it, his ambition.
Certainly, Freud told the critic David Sylvester, he needed models whose "aura was the starting point of his [Freud's] excitement". But by the end, the picture was all he felt about, and each revealed to him "a great insufficiency that drives him on".
Thus, after numerous sittings, the 11th Duke of Devonshire was summoned back to Freud's studio because the artist had not got the silk of his subject's shirt quite right. "Rembrandt would have done it, and I'm damn well going to do it too," said Freud. The remark revealed not only the standards Freud hoped to emulate, but also the hunger of a great painter to inspire the sort of reaction to art experienced by Jose Ortega y Gasset on first seeing Velazquez's Las Meninas: "This isn't art, it's life perpetuated."
Lucian Freud was born in Berlin on December 8, 1922, the middle brother of three. His father, an architect, was the youngest son of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis.
Lucian's mother was the daughter of a rich grain merchant, and he had a comfortable childhood, growing up in a house near the Tiergarten, being schooled at the Franzosisches Gymnasium and holidaying on his maternal grandfather's estate.
It was an environment that, from an early age, he found overprotective, and even as a young boy he made regular forays into rougher neighbourhoods to escape the smothering attentions of his parents and nannies. Such expeditions were evidence of a nature that was both curious and wilful.
The rising tide of anti-Semitism in Germany and the appointment of Hitler as Chancellor prompted the Freuds to move to England in 1933. They settled in Mayfair, not far from Green Park, the setting of the earliest of the many stories that spattered Freud's reputation with mud.
It was said that the origins of Lucian's near lifelong estrangement from his younger brother Clemens, later the MP Sir Clement Freud, lay in an adolescent race around the park. When his brother threatened to win, Lucian called out "Stop thief!" and Clemens was promptly seized by passers-by.
The story seemed improbable, but that it could sustain repetition at all was proof that many were willing to believe the worst of the adult Freud.
Though capable of great charm, as his amorous conquests testified, in later years he became notorious for his temper, once punching Harold Macmillan's son-in-law, Andrew Heath, after he had taken Freud to task over the way he was treating his then wife. Freud was well-known for his bitter feuds. He eventually fell out with, among others, Francis Bacon, arguably his closest friend; Lord Glenconner, an earliest patron; and his dealer, James Kirkman.
Lucian was sent to Dartington Hall, the progressive boarding school, from 1933 to 1937, and then for a year to Bryanston, from which he was expelled for disruptive behaviour. He devoted most of his time at Bryanston to riding and to drawing, in which he was encouraged by Sigmund Freud's gift of some prints of Brueghel's paintings.
At 15, Lucian enrolled at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, London, but in 1939, dissatisfied with the school's classically oriented curriculum, he moved to the East Anglian School of Painting in Dedham. That same year he took British nationality.
The East Anglian School was run by the artist Cedric Morris, who was the first to persuade Freud to begin working with paint. He forgave his pupil when Freud left a cigarette alight and burned the school down.
By now Freud had been recognised as a prodigy and had a sketched self-portrait accepted by Horizon, for which he also drew portraits of its editors, Cyril Connolly and Stephen Spender. Freud took a studio in Maida Vale and cultivated a bohemian image, stalking through wartime London in a fez and fur coat, a bird of prey perched on his wrist.
Among his other eccentricities was the refusal for many years to have a telephone in his studio; until the late Eighties, friends could contact him with any certainty only by telegram. Freud guarded his privacy jealously, and one potential biographer claimed that he had abandoned the project after receiving mysterious and threatening telephone calls.
In 1942 Freud enlisted in the Merchant Navy and served for three months on the convoy vessel Baltrover before being invalided out. But his brief service confirmed his instinct that he would find such raw milieux attractive and stimulating, and when he returned to London he rented a studio beside the Grand Union Canal, the border between working-class Paddington and better-heeled Little Venice.
The divide mirrored that which Freud maintained in his social life. He moved easily and steadily between the two worlds, perhaps breakfasting at a workmen's cafe before driving his Bentley to Soho for a day's drinking and betting with Jeffrey Bernard or the photographer John Deakin. Freud was a notorious and reckless gambler, and in 1983 was warned off the Turf after reneging on debts to bookmakers of some £20,000.
At night he would return to the West End, a spare figure immaculately dressed, this time perhaps for a drink with the Duke of Devonshire before moving on to a nightclub in Berkeley Square.
It was a Pimpernel-like existence that amused some of his friends and infuriated others, notably Francis Bacon, with whom he finally fell out over what Bacon perceived as Freud's snobbish cultivation of position. Certainly, Freud eventually forsook Paddington for the grander environs of Holland Park; but the view from his flat was of the tower blocks of Shepherd's Bush.
Freud was given his first exhibition in 1944 by the Lefevre Gallery. By now he was concentrating on painting rather than on drawing, working in a style some thought influenced by Surrealism. Thus the subject of Quince On A Blue Table (1943-44) is somewhat overshadowed by the baleful zebra's head that thrusts from the wall above the table. Freud, characteristically, denied having been influenced by another style.
From 1946 until 1948 Freud lived and painted in Greece and France, where he met Picasso.
When Freud returned to England it was to begin teaching at the Slade, and to marry Kitty Garman, the daughter of the sculptor Jacob Epstein.
Freud's wife became the subject of his first important series of portraits, notable for their flat contours, stylised line and stark lighting. The wide-eyed subject of Girl With Roses (1946-48) and Girl With Leaves (1945) is treated with an unsettling, detached sensuality reminiscent of 15th-century Flemish portraiture or, more recently, of Ingres -- so much so that Herbert Read called Freud "the Ingres of existentialism".
This period of Freud's work culminated in portraits of two of his closest friends -- Francis Bacon, whom he painted on copper, and the photographer Harry Diamond. The latter portrait is suffused with tension born of the unnatural lack of animation in Diamond's face and posture, a calmness belied by his clenched fist and aggressive open stance.
In the painting, Freud hints at a barely suppressed violence beneath Diamond's static exterior and externalises it in the shape of a man-sized and threateningly spiky potted plant, one of several to appear in his work.
The portrait brought Freud the Arts Council prize at the Festival of Britain, for which he was the youngest artist given a commission.
Freud divorced his wife in 1952. The next year he married Lady Caroline Blackwood, daughter of the fourth Marquess of Dufferin and Ava. They were divorced in 1957, and she later married the poet Robert Lowell, who in 1977 was found dead in a New York taxi with his arms clasped around Freud's portrait of the blonde-haired young Caroline. She died in 1996.
By the late Fifties, Freud had begun to pull away from his neo-romanticist contemporaries such as Graham Sutherland and John Minton with whom he had been grouped, and he gradually evolved a style of work that was to sharply divide critics.
His portraits began to become more tactile, demonstrating eventually an almost sculptural fascination with flesh and its contours. Freud abandoned the fine lines of his early work for broader strokes -- swapping sable brushes for hogshair -- and began to work with a more limited palette in which greasy whites and meaty reds predominated. His subjects were also often foreshortened or seen from a peculiar angle, a change in technique brought on by Freud's beginning to paint while standing up rather than sitting.
Most of the best-known works that Freud executed in the next 40 years were of nudes, rather vulnerable figures usually placed against a white sheet on an iron bed or on an old Chesterfield sofa in Freud's studio. The subjects often seem to be tired or even asleep, yet Freud's gaze remains tireless, even pitiless under the glare thrown by an interrogator's 500-watt bulb.
Moreover, there is little independent communication between sitter and onlooker, for the eyes of Freud's subjects rarely meet any outside the studio.
Freud sometimes ascribed the change in his style to a conversation with Bacon in which he was urged to put more of his own life into his work. Some critics who sought evidence of this concluded that what was going into the work was Freud's dissatisfaction with his own life.
In particular, Freud's soured romances were said to have left him with a contempt for women that made him paint them as a voyeur. He was accused of being cerebral, cruel or macabre, and, in the words of David Sylvester, having the eye not of a painter but of a pathologist.
There was certainly little respect for frail mankind in Freud's work, and many of his pictures seemed to convey only the tedium of existence, the waiting for death. Thus, in perhaps his best-known composition of the Eighties, Large Interior W11 (After Watteau) (1981-83), Freud replaced the lively flirtation among members of a comic troupe in Watteau's original painting with a group of his own children and friends, seemingly bored and lost in their separate thoughts.
The painting was sold in 1997 for £3.75m, a record for a living British artist, although the money went not to Freud but to his former dealer, James Kirkman, with whom he had fallen out.
Yet if there was no outright affection for humanity in Freud's work, there was no hostility either. Rather, there was evidence only of an unwearying fascination with the human form, and of a striving to be faithful to it in all its moments, by turns sullen, proud and tender.
Freud displayed a distinct feeling for the last of these qualities, notably in portraits painted in the Eighties of his elderly mother, of his daughter Bella, and in compositions featuring dogs, such as Double Portrait (1985-86), in which the hand of a sleeping subject cups the muzzle of a similarly drowsy hound.
Freud continued to paint into old age, among the most remarkable of his later works being the full-length naked self-portrait Painter Working (1993), which seemed to depict him as an elderly satyr, shod, almost comically, in a pair of ancient fell-walking shoes. It was a rare explicit glimpse of Freud himself in a body of work that otherwise was introspective only by proxy.
He exhibited regularly and had a number of retrospective showings of his paintings, including one at the Hayward Gallery, London, in 1998, and a large show at Tate Britain in 2002. Since the millennium there have been solo exhibitions in New York, Edinburgh, Los Angeles, Venice, Dublin, The Hague and Paris. Comparatively few of his paintings, however, are in public collections. Between May 2000 and December 2001, Freud painted the Queen, with controversial results. In May 2008, his 1995 picture, shown above, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping,was sold at Christie's in New York for $33.6m, a record for a work by a living artist.
Freud was appointed a Companion of Honour in 1983, and a member of the Order of Merit in 1993.
It is difficult to be precise about Freud's progeny, but there appear to be at least 13. He had two daughters by his first marriage. He had four children by Suze Boyt, one of whom is the novelist Rose Boyt; by Katherine McAdam, he had two sons and two daughters; by Celia Paul, he had a son; and he had two daughters by Bernadine Coverley -- the writer Esther Freud and the fashion designer Bella Freud.