Lucian Freud
Biography of British Realist Figure Painter, Portrait Artist.

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Lucian Freud (1922-2011)


Early Life
Muted Colours
Late 1950s and 1960s
Male Nudes
Selected Exhibitions

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The Berlin-born painter Lucian Freud was one of the world's greatest living Realist artists and arguably the greatest living exponent of figure painting. A specialist in representational art - including male as well as female nudes along with various types of portrait art - he is regarded by most critics as being among the best English painters of the 20th century, and one of the best portrait artists of his generation. Grandson of Sigmund Freud, Lucian is known for his relatively austere style of realism, as exemplified by his brutally honest paintings of friends and family. His celebrated painting Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, which features a grossly overweight woman dozing naked on a sofa, fetched $33m at a Christie's auction of modern art in 2008. This far exceeded the previous record for a living artist, set by Jeff Koons whose 'Hanging Heart sculpture' sold for $23m a few months previously. Freud, whose sitters have included Kate Moss, has commented about his art: "I paint people not because of what they are like, not exactly in spite of what they are like, but how they happen to be." An icon of British contemporary painting, along with Francis Bacon (1909-92), many of Lucian Freud's paintings are available as prints in the form of poster art.


Lucian Freud, one of the great
portrait artists of the 20th century.

Early Life

Lucian was born in Berlin in 1922. His father Ernst Freud, the youngest son of the Viennese psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, was an architect who had painted as a student. His mother, Lucie Brasch, was the daughter of a rich merchant. The family lived in a wealthy area of the city, but when Hitler came to power in 1933 Ernst decided to move his family to England for safety. Lucian was about 11 when he arrived in the country and became a naturalised citizen in 1939. From an early age he enjoyed drawing and everyone assumed he was destined to become an artist. In 1939 he gained admission to the East Anglian School of Drawing and Painting, run by the painter Cedric Morris. Morris was a self taught artist and influenced the way Freud worked. Freud's early works were 'spikey', figures were heavily lineated - similar in style to German Expressionists like Max Beckmann (1884-1950) and Otto Dix (1891-1969). Some critics pointed to a Surrealism influence but as Freud himself stated: "As a young man I was not obsessed with working in a specific way, even though I felt very little freedom. The rigidity of Surrealism, its rigid dogma of irrationality, seemed unduly limiting. I could never put anything into a picture that wasn't actually there in front of me. That would be a pointless lie, a mere bit of artfulness". That said, his early work The Painters Room (1944) which shows a couch and a giant zebra poking his head through a window seems to have definite surrealist overtures.


Drawing, and especially figure drawing, is an essential element in Freud's art. He says "he wants to draw and go somewhere from there". He was a great admirer of the draughtsmanship of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), saying "Ingres couldn't draw without inventing...A line, any single line, of his drawings is worth looking at". Colour is downplayed, "I don't want any of my colours to be noticeable. I want the colour to be the colour of life, so that you would notice it as being irregular if it changed".

Muted Colours

The colour in Freud's early painting is muted, he often cleaned his brush after each stroke to achieve the clean finish. This can be seen in his painting Girl with a White Dog (1951) which shows his first wife, Kitty, sitting on a couch - bearing one breast, and a dog with his head on her lap. He became interested in the connection between humans and animals, culminating in his painting Naked Man with a Rat (1977). Other important work from this period include Interior in Paddington (1951), Portrait of Francis Bacon (1952), Girl in Bed (1952), Hotel Bedroom (1954) and Man in a Mackintosh (1957).

Late 1950s and 1960s

In the late 1950s Freud's style changed and his started painting in heavier impasto. His brushmarks became brusquer, and he began to paint blotches on skin, veins, fat and muscle. Sleeping Head (1962) is considered one of his first breaks in this area. It is an up-close of a woman's head, sleeping, and although we can't see the rest of her body, the use of swirling paint in her puffy face seems to echo a thigh, buttock and breast. Freud stated: "I was going to do a nude, then I realised that I could do it from the head". His study of nudes, are intense and unsettling and critics have claimed similarities to those of Picasso. Other paintings from this period include John Deakin (1963), Naked Child Laughing (1963), Interior with Hand Mirror (Self Portrait, 1967), Naked Girl (1966), Girl in a Fur Coat (1967) and Buttercups (1968).

Male Nudes

In the mid 1970s, Freud turned his attend to male nudes - they are often sitting in modern houses, reclined on sofas and beds. Dogs, rats and other animals are often seem quietly reposing with the sitter. Some of the paintings have unsettling undertones, such as Naked Man with his Friend (1978). Here a ginger haired man is seen naked on a sofa, lying with another man, who is much older and dressed in a white suit. Although Freud has occasionally shifted his attention to other subjects like urban landscapes, it is the fleshy body of nudes that continue to occupy his attention. Freud often painted the same sitter several times - as his work involves showing the inner character of a person, he feels the more he paints them, the more chance he has to truly represent them, physically and emotionally.

Freud continued to live and work in his studio in Holland Park, London up until his final years. He enjoyed several major retrospectives, including one at the Scottish National Gallery and the Tate Britain. Shortlisted for the prestigious Turner Prize, Freud's work commands great respect around the world, and he is seen as one of the greatest 20th century painters of the representational genre.

NOTE: For other outstanding examples of contemporary portraiture, see: Greatest 20th-Century Paintings.

Selected Exhibitions

1944: Lefevre Gallery, London
1947: The London Gallery
1950: Hanover Gallery, London
1954: British Pavilion Venice Biennale
1958: Marlborough Fine Art, London
1972: Anthony d'Offay, London
1974: Retrospective, Hayward Gallery, London
1979: Davis & Long Co, New York
1983: Thomas Agnew & Sons, London

Selected Group Shows

1948: 'Forty Years of Modern Art', Institute of Contemporary Art, London
1950: 'London-Paris', Institute of Contemporary Art, London
1953: 'Portraits by Contemporary British Artists' Marlborough Fine Art, London
1962: 'British Self Portraits from Sickert to the Present Day', Arts Council
1966: 'British Painting since 1945', Tate Gallery, London
1976: 'The Human Clay', Arts Council of Great Britain, Hayward Gallery
1979: 'The British Art Show', Arts Council of Great Britain.
1981: 'Eight Figurative Artists', Yale Center for British Art, New Haven
1984: 'The Hard Won Image', Tate Gallery
1986: 'Forty Years of Modern Art', Tate Gallery
1987: 'British Art in the 20th Century', Royal Academy of Arts.
1987: 'A School of London: Six Figurative Painters', Kunstnernes Hus, Oslo; Museum of Modern Art, Louisiana; Museo d'Arte Moderna, Venice; Kunstmuseum, Dusseldorf.

Paintings by Lucian Freud can be seen in several of the best art museums throughout the world, including the Tate Gallery London.

• For more biographies of modern English artists, see: Famous Painters.
• For more information about modern portrait paintings, see: Homepage.

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