Historically in Britain, there have been strong cultural and social ties between artists and the upper class, thanks in part to the system of aristocratic patronage. Although this was less marked in the 20th century, high society has seen a resurgence since the 1980s, around the same time that Lucian Michael Freud, deceased last Wednesday, began to be recognised as one of the great British painters of this or any time.
Lucian was born in Berlin, Germany in 1922, and moved to London aged eleven, after his family foresaw the danger of the emerging Nazi state. They were a sophisticated Jewish household, whose impressive lineage counted among its members Sigmund Freud and Anna Freud. His childhood was generally comfortable, lived under the wing of a glamorous and clever-talking elite. Nonetheless, moving away from Germany is thought to have unsettled him and he was often in trouble at school.
In his personal life he was bright and daring and started to cement friendships with powerful socialites.
In 1938, Freud attended the Central School of Arts in London, then from 1939 he studied at the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing. He held a place there until 1942, before spending a year at Goldsmiths College in 1943. His early cue was Surrealism, and from there began his lifelong pursuit of subtle distortions of perspective. By 1944, his paintings were being displayed in the Lefevre Gallery. In his personal life he was bright and daring, and started to cement friendships with London’s wealthy and powerful socialites.
Sometime around the turn of the 1950s, Freud’s work began to more closely describe his intimate life and he started foregoing professional models, choosing instead to paint his friends, family and acquaintances, a practice he would adhere to from then on. At the same time his marriages proliferated (1948 to Kitty Garman, Lady Caroline Blackwood in 1953), as did his children – he is rumoured to have fathered as many as 40, although the number is probably closer to 13.
His striking and unsettling portraits are difficult to forget and some have become iconic.
By the 1970s he had developed his painstaking impasto technique, which in turn showed the quality of his outstanding patience. He was demanding of his models, sometimes requiring from them daily sittings for months on end. At the same time, he continued to move in lavish, aristocratic circles, painting friends such as the Duke of Devonshire and Lord Jacob Rothschild, and acquiring subjects as illustrious as Queen Elizabeth II. His portrait of the monarch was controversial, and was treated as a scandal in some sections of the press. This, to some extent, may have been the painter’s intention.
As an artist, Freud anticipated a turn away from abstract painting towards the figurative. His striking and unsettling portraits are difficult to forget and some, such as Boy Smoking or Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, have become iconic. As a public figure, an air of mystery and wickedness hung about him, which was something he learned to play to his advantage. In private, and perhaps most importantly, Lucian Freud was an ambassador for the British establishment. His rise to fame in the late 20th century coincides with an important shift in the country: a time when the upper class was regaining its footing in popular culture, from where many thought it had been permanently ejected.
The National Portrait Gallery is planning an exhibition of Lucian Freud’s portraits that will open early next year.