Lucian Freud is considered by many to be the greatest figurative painter of our time. Figurative art represents things as they really look, not in an abstract or stylized way. One of Freud’s most famous paintings is a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II.
Lucian Freud was born in Germany. To escape Nazism though, the Freuds moved to England. In Britain, Lucian studied art at the Central School of Art and Cedric Morris’ East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing. As a young artist, he was hired to illustrate a book of poems by Nicholas Baker. The drawings were included in his first solo exhibition a year later. He travelled to Greece and Ireland, but worked most of his live in London. There he was a member of a loose collection of artists that R.B. Kitaj named “The School of London.” They were notable for creating figurative painting when abstraction was most popular.
Freud’s early work were small expressionist paintings of people, plants, and animals. He also experimented with a more precise, more careful style. It’s most famous example was a series of large-eyed portraits that he did of his wife.<p>In the 1950’s though, the artist devoted himself to portraiture. He developed a much freer style using thicker paint and texture. Backgrounds and objects were grey or muted. When painting people though, he cleaned his brush between every stroke to keep the color rich and changing. Models often reclined on couches, beds, or floors. The poses reminded some people of Lucian’s grandfather, Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis. Indeed, Lucian’s work became widely known for their “psychological penetration.” Freud expected his models to sit for him for the entirety of a painting. This demanded a long, uncertain amount of time. One painting for example took sixteen months to complete. The artist used this time to tell stories and get to know his subjects. He would draw his models’ heads to get to know them, continue to the rest of the painting, then return to paint the head again once he knew the model better. After sitting for a painting, art critic Martin Gayford praised the artist’s perceptiveness, “The final portrait reveals secrets – aging, ugliness, faults – that I imagine I am hiding from the world.”
“I paint people,” Freud described his own work, “Not because of what they are like, not exactly in spite of what they are like, but how they happen to be.”<p>Freud was one of the best known British artists. He represented his country in exhibitions around the world and at home in the Tate Britain. He spent a year and half painting Queen Elizabeth II. The British media called the painting “a travesty” because of its unflinchingly honest portrayal of the monarch. Despite this controversy, his paintings continue to sell for millions of dollars and are prized by museums and private collectors.
Lucian Freud died in 2011.
I have to be careful when teaching Lucian Freud to my elementary school students. There is more to his life and his work than I could include in this biography. That said, I love to mention him before a portrait project. His work challenges young artists to be brave with their likenesses, to stay true to what they see. “I know you want it to look pretty,” I counseled a student the other day, “But every time you make a change the portrait looks less like the real person.” Instead of conforming to our ideas about beauty, Lucian Freud challenges students to see the beauty that is already there.
Portrait of Lucian Freud drawn by Rama Hughes from a photo by Stephan Agostini (AFP/GETTY). Portrait of Queen Elizabeth II by Lucian Freud.