Lucian Freud: dogged portraitist

What can I add to the mountain of words that are being written about Lucian Freud, whose death at the age of 88 has been announced?  He was, arguably, the most important British post-Second World War painter. He has became famous not only for his individual style of painting, which developed over the years into that distinctive slathered impasto, but also for his masterful and deeply personal interpretation of the nude and the representation of the human face and body.

I remember going to the big retrospective of Freud’s work at Tate Britain in 2002 – perhaps the best exhibition I have ever seen, one I found intensely emotional and moving because of the deep humanity that his paintings transmit through their intense scrutiny of the human form.

I pulled out the catalogue of that exhibition this morning.  It begins with this statement by his friend Frank Auerbach which seems to perfectly crystallise the significance of Freud’s work:

I can only put this approximately; I am not a writer.

When I think of artists, the first image that occurs has something to do with their manner. Matisse: shaped colour aspiring to transcendence; Michelangelo: twisted masses evoking (both in sculpture and in painting) a sort of muscular and organic sculpture; Durer: a wiry lasso of a line capturing the quarry, etc., etc.

When I think of the work of Lucian Freud, I think of Lucian’s attention to his subject. If his concentrated interest were to falter he would come off the tightrope; he has no safety net of manner. Whenever his way of working threatens to become a style, he puts it aside like a blunted pencil and finds a procedure more suited to his needs.

I am never aware of the aesthetic paraphernalia. The subject is raw, not cooked to be more digestible as art, not covered in a gravy of ostentatious tone or colour, not arranged on the plate as a ‘composition’.

The paintings live because their creator has been passionately attentive to their theme, and his attention has left something for us to look at. It seems a sort of miracle.

I bought the poster of that Tate exhibition and I look at it every day.  It features the painting at the top of this post – Double Portrait  of  1985. I love way that human and animal limbs entwine and echo. Flicking through the exhibition catalogue, I realised that in many of his human portraits, Freud has included a dog, often one of his beloved whippets, painted in the same style as his paints his human models, and afforded the same importance in the composition. So this post will celebrate the dog in Freud’s portraits.
In many of his portraits, Freud painted members of his family, friends, and people from his inner circle – probing deep into the individuality of the person through the intensity of his observation and the sensuality of his richly textured paint. The woman reclining on a bed resting on her elbow in the Double Portrait (above) is his daughter with the whippet Pluto.

Freud loved dogs (at home and on the dog-track), but not sentimentally or with any fellow-feeling:

The only thing I don’t like about them is what’s called doglike devotion. Also, I have a hatred of habit and routine. And what dogs love is just that. They like regular everything, and I don’t have regular anything. I have a timetable, but no routine.

In the catalogue accompanying the 2002 exhibition, its curator William Feaver noted that Freud was impressed by dogs’ ‘lack of arrogance, their ready eagerness, their animal pragmatism’ and made an important connection with Freud’s approach to portraiture:

In the sense that they are at their most animal-like when resting or sleeping, those who sit for Freud trust him to bring out the animal in them.

Feaver writes that Freud would quote these lines from TS Eliot’s Preludes which tell us a great deal about his portraits and seem to speak to the arrangement of limbs in Double Portrait  of  1985 and similar paintings:

I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.

I’m really interested in people as animals,’ Freud told William Feaver.  ‘Part of my liking to work from them naked is for that reason.  Because I can see more’ and it’s also very exciting to see the forms repeating through the body and often the head as well.  I like people to look as natural and as physically at ease as animals, as Pluto my whippet’.

Freud’s first painting of a dog – and certainly one of his best-known – is Girl with a White Dog, from 1951-52 (above).  Richard Dorment, writing in The Telegraph on the occasion of the Freud retrospective at the Tate in 2002, observed:

Every millimetre of Girl with a White Dog of 1950-51 is charged with intensity – the texture of Kitty’s lime-green robe, the mole on her breast, the crease in the striped sofa, and the bull terrier as indifferent to the artist as its mistress is transfixed by him.

Other examples of portraits with dogs in Freud’s work include Guy and Speck (1980–81, above), Eli and David (2005–06, below).

Robert Hughes wrote of the portrait of David and Eli (2003-4, below) as being a masterpiece:

It possesses an amazing structural toughness and Dawson’s body, though in the act of reclining, seems at the same moment to tower over you: a doubling whose strangeness seems only to grow the more you look. [...]

Perhaps no one has brought more feeling to the scrutiny of dogs since Landseer, though Freud would doubtless prefer a comparison to Stubbs. The task of depicting dogs – particularly beloved ones – attracts false feelings like fleas, but Freud’s great etched portrait of Eli is all objective animal, no phoney “humanism”. Even when he paints the grave of Pluto, Eli’s predecessor (rather confusingly, Pluto, though named after the male god of the underworld, was a whippet bitch), he doesn’t get soppily reminiscent: it is just a little wintry patch of earth and leaves.

Triple Portrait 1987 (below) has Pluto, the whippet bought by Freud for his daughter Bella and later taken on by him, asleep with another whippet, Joshua, whose owner is awake and thoughtful.

There are two lovely etchings of his whippets – Pluto (immediately below) and Eli (below).

At the 2002 exhibition, I remember being struck  by Sunny Morning—Eight Legs (below).  Like Double Portrait, it’s another study of the arrangement of limbs, and I appreciated it for the humour of those two human limbs emerging from beneath the bed.  However, the Art Institute of Chicago commenting on this painting make a different interpretation:

The monumental Sunny Morning—Eight Legs confronts us with three models arranged on top of and under a sheet-draped bed in the artist’s London studio. The legs that emerge from beneath the bed are the reverse of those of the reclining man; the inclusion of the lower pair of legs, without a body, imparts a tone of perversion, even violence. The model’s exposed genitals and almost pleading expression; the downward angle of the floor, accentuated by the second pair of legs; the heavy, falling linen; and the dog’s delicate frame as it nestles against the man combine to present a disturbing image of vulnerability and mystery.

Lucian Freud Sunny Morning - Eight Legs, 1997

Pluto was, Freud asserted, an excellent sitter: ‘Sleeps well’.  She appears again in Pluto and the Bateman Sisters (1995, below) …

Lucian Freud Pluto and the Bateman Sisters, 1995

… And in this 1988 Double Portrait of Freud’s daughter Bella, reclining on a bed resting on her elbow …

Lucian Freud Double Portrait 1988

… While Eli is the subject of the 2002 canvas below, along with a pair of human feet.

The photograph below shows Lucian Freud with his dealer, William Acquavelle, and his dog Eli at his London studio.
A portrait of Freud’s assistant David Dawson, with Eli, is on the easel in background.

It was David Dawson who took these evocative photographs in Lucian Freud’s studio:

Eli surveys the scene from his rather splendid throne…

… And displays his contempt for the artist’s model.

Lucian Freud Working At Night

And I think there is nothing finer than David Dawson’s stunning photograph of Lucian Freud in typical working mode (above).  The final painting in the Lucian Freud 2002 retrospective was this recently completed self portrait, Self Portrait, Reflection:

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9 thoughts on “Lucian Freud: dogged portraitist

  1. Thank you for this beautiful post. I found my way here through Moira from Dog Art Today. “Humanity”, is the word that lingered around in my head after seeing an exhibition of Freud’s work a few years ago. Utterly impressed and deeply moved by some paintings, I found his work profoundly human. I felt I could embrace mankind like it is. Such power!

  2. And he and my big brother, Pete, were my introduction to culture. Pete (introduced at 13 to art via Toccy Tech and Liverpool Art College classes) took me down town (No 10 bus from the Eagle and Child) to the Walker (on a promise of beans on toast) to see http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/walker/collections/20c/freud.aspx
    I was 9, Pete was 16. It stays with me to this day. A cherished memory. A favourite painting by a favourite painter. Thanks, Gerry.

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