Lucian Freud, who died on Wednesday at the age of 88, was arguably the greatest British painter of his era. In an age defined by abstraction, conceptualism, photography and film, he remained faithful to the art of figurative portraiture for almost his entire 60-year career.
In recent years, the unforgettable power of his oeuvre – defined by its flawed, quivering-fleshed nudes and piercingly revealing portraits, and most often uniting the two – has led critics to compare him to the Old Masters of the human figure: Titian, Rembrandt, Ingres and Manet. Writing on the occasion of his last major retrospective, at the Pompidou Centre, Paris, in spring 2010, the Financial Times critic Jackie Wullschlager described him as an “unrivalled interpreter of human flesh and the human psyche in paint”.
Freud was born in Berlin in 1922. His architect father, an Austrian Jew, was the youngest son of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis; his younger brother was Clement Freud, the politician and broadcaster. In 1933, the family moved to Britain to escape the threat of Nazism. By the mid-1940s, after spells at various art schools and a stint as a merchant seaman during the second world war, Freud had become part of the bohemian Soho-based milieu of artists and intellectuals who included Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, Ron Kitaj and the Irish painter and writer Patrick Swift, who published some of Freud’s early works in his cultural review X Magazine.
As a young man, Freud took his cue from surrealism, painting figures in heightened tones and mannered poses in interiors whose distorted perspectives lend them an uncanny air. His delight in exaggeration and curious detail would serve him well when he turned to portraiture in the 1950s.
By then, his personal life was already fraught with complexity. In 1948 he married Kitty Garman, daughter of the sculptor Jacob Epstein. She gave him two daughters but five years later they were divorced and Freud had married the society beauty and writer Lady Caroline Blackwood. That marriage too lasted only some five years. Other relationships followed, Freud fathering 13 acknowledged children, among whom are the designer Bella Freud and her sister, the novelist Esther Freud.
The charged emotional drama of his private world found its way into his paintings from the start: in “Girl With a White Dog” (1950-51), a big-eyed, frightened Kitty is captured curled up on a sofa, one breast exposed, and a whippet as her only human solace. Three years later, in “Hotel Bedroom” (1954), Blackwood was painted as she lay ill in bed, her exquisite face as gaunt and sunken as that of an old woman.
Cruel and cold they may have been, but Freud’s capacity to get beneath his models’ skin made even these early paintings compelling. By the 1970s, he had fully evolved an extraordinarily painstaking technique, layering colours so richly that his paintings basked in a glorious impasto crust, while his nudes took their variegated gleam from his use of cremnitz white, a heavy granular pigment. The result was paintings that triumphantly vindicated his ambition to get “paint to work as flesh”, to make his portraits “be of the people, not like them. Not having a look of the sitter, being them ... As far as I am concerned the paint is the person. I want it to work for me just as flesh does.”
Freud luxuriated too shamelessly in the rapport between skin and paint to be labelled, as he often was, a realist painter. Yet he was no expressionist either, saying once of his work that “it is not remotely symbolical. That is what must be stressed”.
He often sought out models – such as the performance artist Leigh Bowery and the JobCentre manager Sue Tilley – whose voluptuous forms allow him to linger on every fold, blemish, wrinkle and discolouration. “I have perhaps a predilection towards people of unusual or strange proportions, which I don’t want to overindulge,” he once admitted. Of Tilley, he said he was “very aware of all kinds of spectacular things to do with her size, like amazing craters and things one’s never seen before”; his 1995 portrait of her, “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping”, sold at auction in 2008 for $33.6m, a record for a work by a living artist.
Yet Freud didn’t shy away from the normal either. Whether painting his own children, friends or sitters who had specifically asked for his services, his surreal eye and superbly skilled brushstrokes transformed every subject into a less-ordinary version that was nevertheless true to its original self. Little wonder that the likes of Kate Moss and Jerry Hall – who subsequently objected strongly when Freud grafted a man’s head on to her heavily pregnant body after she failed to turn up for sessions – offered themselves as sitters. He was notorious for expecting extreme discipline from his models, sometimes requiring a year or more of daily posing.
Given that Freud combatted accusations of misogyny throughout his career, it is paradoxical that the artist who most rapidly comes to mind as his heir is Jenny Saville, a painter of bodies in extremis who has been hailed by feminist critics. Overall, however, Freud’s twin passions – paint and flesh – and the fastidious, focused genius with which he celebrated them mark him out as a precious and brilliant throwback to an earlier artistic age.