Lucian Freud, whose stark and revealing paintings of friends and intimates, splayed nude in his studio, recast the art of portraiture and offered a new approach to figurative art, died Wednesday at his home in London. He was 88.
He died following a brief illness, said William Acquavella of Acquavella Galleries, Mr. Freud’s dealer.
Mr. Freud, a grandson of Sigmund Freud and a brother of the British television personality Clement Freud, was already an important figure in the small London art world when, in the immediate postwar years, he embarked on a series of portraits that established him as a potent new voice in figurative art.
In paintings like “Girl With Roses” (1947-48) and “Girl With a White Dog” (1951-52), he put the pictorial language of traditional European painting in the service of an anti-romantic, confrontational style of portraiture that stripped bare the sitter’s social facade. Ordinary people — many of them his friends and intimates — stared wide-eyed from the canvas, vulnerable to the artist’s ruthless inspection.
From the late 1950s, when he began using a stiffer brush and moving paint in great swaths around the canvas, Mr. Freud’s nudes took on a new fleshiness and mass. His subjects, pushed to the limit in exhausting extended sessions, day after day, dropped their defenses and opened up. The faces showed fatigue, distress, torpor.
The flesh was mottled, lumpy and, in the case of his 1990s portraits of performance artist Leigh Bowery and the phenomenally obese civil servant Sue Tilley, shockingly abundant.
The relationship between sitter and painter, in his work, overturned traditional portraiture.
Lucian Michael Freud was born in Berlin on Dec. 8, 1922, and grew up in a wealthy neighborhood near the Tiergarten. His father, Ernst L. Freud, an architect who was Sigmund Freud’s youngest son, married Lucie Brasch, the heiress to a timber fortune.
In 1933, after Hitler came to power, the Freuds moved to London, where Lucian attended progressive schools but showed little academic promise. He was more interested in horses than in his studies, and entertained thoughts of becoming a jockey.
In 1938, he was expelled from Bryanston, in Dorset, after dropping his trousers on a dare on a street in Bournemouth. But his sandstone sculpture of a horse earned him entry into the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London. He left there after a year to enroll in the East Anglian School of Drawing and Painting in Dedham, where he studied with painter Cedric Morris. While it is true that the school burned to the ground while he was there, the often repeated story that Mr. Freud accidentally started the fire with a discarded cigarette seems unlikely.
In 1941, hoping to make his way to New York, Mr. Freud enlisted in the Merchant Navy, where he served on a convoy ship crossing the Atlantic. He got no nearer to New York than Halifax, Nova Scotia, and after returning to Liverpool developed tonsillitis and was given a medical discharge from the service.
Mr. Freud was a bohemian of the old school. He set up his studios in squalid neighborhoods, developed a Byronic reputation as a rake and gambled recklessly (“debit stimulates me,” he once said). In 1948, he married Kitty Garman, the daughter of sculptor Jacob Epstein, whom he depicted in several portraits, notably “Girl With Roses,” “Girl With a Kitten” (1947) and “Girl With a White Dog” (1950-51). That marriage ended in divorce, as did his second marriage, to Lady Caroline Blackwood.
On rare occasions Mr. Freud took on something akin to official portraits. He painted collector Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, fully clothed, in “Man in a Chair” (1985). His stern 2001 portrait of Queen Elizabeth, showing the royal head topped by the Diamond Diadem, divided the critics and public.
Some critics hailed the picture as bold, uncompromising and truthful. Arthur Morrison, the arts editor of The Times of London, wrote, “The chin has what can only be described as a six-o’clock shadow, and the neck would not disgrace a rugby prop forward.” The newspaper’s royal photographer said Mr. Freud should be thrown into the Tower of London.
First published on July 22, 2011 at 12:00 am