Why Lucian Freud always put art before family
He’s perhaps best known for his fleshy nudes painted in muted colours and with thick brushstrokes. And for decades, Lucian Freud was revered as Britain’s greatest living painter. Now, six months after his death, the National Portrait Gallery in London is mounting the largest ever collection of his work.
This ranges from early portraits of his first wife Kitty Garman in the 1940s through to his famous paintings of Leigh Bowery, Francis Bacon and David Hockney right up to his most recent work – his final, unfinished portrait of his friend and assistant David Dawson. Dawson worked with Freud seven days a week for more than twenty years – and closely observed his creative process.
Above: Girl in a Dark Jacket, 1947. Private collection, copyright the Lucian Freud Archive. Photo: courtesy Lucian Freud Archive.
“It was a very slow process,” he told me today, “Large paintings would take at least 12 months. By looking very intensely at his sitter, he would glean information from that and layer it onto the painting and over the months all the sort of personality within you would slowly come out and this sense that he’d seen fresh things.”
It’s often said that this is what sets Freud apart from other portrait painters – his ability to capture the emotional essence of his sitters, to understand their inner psychology and represent this on the canvas. For this reason, experiencing the new show at the National Portrait Gallery can be a bit unsettling – and very moving. Because the show has been brilliantly curated, bringing together over 100 paintings spanning seven decades. The effect of so much intensity and emotion in one exhibition is quite extraordinary. And I don’t mind admitting that when I first looked at it I actually felt tearful.
But this is where the appeal of Freud the painter becomes even more fascinating. Because the sensitive artist who so deeply understood the psychology of his sitters – and demonstrated such an incredible capacity for empathy – could be seen to clash with the life of a man who, we’re led to believe, was a known womaniser who fathered at least 14 children. With many of these he had little or no relationship. But how could this be possible?
The truth is, the history of the arts abounds with examples of painters, writers and musicians who treated their partners abominably – or made terrible parents. From Pablo Picasso to Ted Hughes, we’ve all heard allegations of shocking callousness at odds with the sensitivity displayed in some of the most emotionally powerful work ever created. Even Charles Dickens, often held up as the custodian of Victorian family values, has been exposed in the work of biographer Claire Tomalin as having a long-term mistress – and treating his wife appallingly on their separation.
Perhaps in order to create great art in whatever discipline, a huge investment of emotional energy is needed – meaning that other areas of the artist’s life will have to suffer. Perhaps all of us, even great artists, only have finite reserves of empathy and sensitivity, and if all of this is channelled into our work, there’s none left for our personal lives.
David Dawson certainly accepts that Freud always put his art first – before his partners and his children. But he believes that this was to do with constraints on Freud’s time, rather than his emotions. As he told me, “I think to make paintings of this quality, he did have to put the hours in every day of the year, year after year after year. It was his choice – and he started from a very young age and he never moved away from that. Right up until last year he was painting every single day.”
However Freud’s numerous children and former partners might have felt about this, the results are there for the rest of us to enjoy. Lucian Freud Portraits is an outstanding show. And one which bursts out with an almost shocking intensity of empathy, sensitivity – and love.
The exhibition opens to the public this Thursday, 9 February.
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