Lucian Freud: by appointment to high society (or was it the other way round?)
The late artist was best known for his portraits in oil, often of very Establishment figures
By Anna Somers Cocks. Web only
Published online: 22 July 2011
London. Lucian Freud, the most famous figurative artist in the western hemisphere, died in London on Wednesday, 20 July, aged 88.
Some very high prices have been paid for Freud's work in recent years, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, 1995, selling for $33.6m in May 2008 at Christie's New York, a new record for a living artist. The short memory of the conformist, fickle art world has led many to forget, however, that only 20 years earlier he was considered a curious, late, insular British manifestation of expressionism and so of no serious interest. His first Paris retrospective, by the unorthodox curator Jean Clair at the Centre Pompidou in 1987, was widely denounced for being unworthy of an institution dedicated to the avant-garde. That same exhibition could not find a top venue in the US prepared to take it so it ended up at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC, the same year.
Although Freud did also paint sensitive still-lifes, mainly of flowers, earlier in his career, he is best know for his portraits in oil, often of very Establishment figures. For Freud was a keen racing man, ate in top restaurants, such as the private Mark’s Club in London, and loved old-fashioned high society. Most of the naked women sprawling in awkward poses for his paintings were thoroughly blue-blooded, their Tatler-ish good looks turned into pathetic carnality by his pitiless eye; and yet they loved him.
Among his clothed sitters were Lord Rothschild, Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza, Lord Goodman, and Andrew Parker-Bowles, the former husband of the Duchess of Cornwall, in full if dishevelled regimentals. An early friend was Lady Anne Tree, who introduced him to her brother, the late Duke of Devonshire, in 1959. The duke suggested he paint the duchess, and Freud proposed that he paint the duke. There are more than a dozen Freuds now on show to visitors to Chatsworth House, Derbyshire. The duchess, who was a close friend of Freud’s, said that he made everyone look like chicken giblets, and indeed, as with Goya’s caricature-like portraits of the Spanish royal family, one wonders why sitters subjected themselves to such unflattering accounts of themselves except perhaps in awe of what a great artist might see in them.
Freud fiercely guarded his privacy, and could be unsmiling and brutally frank at times. Only close friends knew of his more playful side. In a photograph by his friend, the picture editor Bruce Bernard, taken in the mid-1980s, Freud is shown standing on his head.
Something of Freud's own taste in painting was revealed in 2002 when he was the curator of an exhibition of John Constable's work for the Grand Palais in Paris, the first major show of the 19th-century British landscape artist in Europe.
Another insight was given when he described Titian’s Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto, 1556-59, now in the National Gallery, London, as “simply the most beautiful pictures in the world”.
The grandson of Sigmund Freud, Lucian Freud was born in Berlin in 1922, moving to London aged ten when his family escaped Nazi persecution.
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