Finishing Well

Lucian Freud—along with Andrew Wyeth, Alex Colville, George Tooker, and Philip Pearlstein, all born between l917 and 1924—opposed the prevailing tide of abstraction in modern art. They created a brilliant tradition of realist paintings whose technique and content impress and convince the viewer. Martin Gayford’s handsome, beautifully illustrated book about Freud’s painting of him, Man with a Blue Scarf, gives a fascinating account of how a genius works, and how a major work of art comes into being. He also provides some rare details of Freud’s private life, including his marriage to his stunning second wife and model Lady Caroline Blackwood (later married to Robert Lowell), and records many of Freud’s perceptive insights about art and literature.

Gayford’s sittings took place over more than seven months, from November 28, 2003, to July 4, 2004. Freud began with a charcoal drawing (putting color on canvas seemed “like going a bit far on the first date”), slowly worked out from the middle, spread the paint in tiny incremental stages, animated the close-up of the head, and built up the planes of the face with thick, almost clashing brushstrokes. With a novelist’s sensibility and a painter’s gaze, the agile eighty-one-year-old Freud moved around the easel with dance-like steps, raising his arm in a half-triumphant, half-despairing gesture. Freud worked on several other pictures while he was painting Gayford’s portrait: horses in a stable, model with fuzzy hair, nude with cherries, and rubicund brigadier. Realizing that “the night cometh when no man can work,” he started the next painting immediately after finishing the previous one. “All my patience,” Freud notes, “has gone into my work, leaving none for my life.” There’s a subtle tension between the sitter’s desire to have the picture finished and the painter’s wish to prolong the process until it has reached perfection.

Gayford does not mention that Freud’s The Brigadier (2004), also reproduced and discussed in this book, was clearly a reworking of James Tissot’s portrait of the explorer and author Captain Frederick Burnaby (1875, National Portrait Gallery, London). Both soldiers wear the Guards’ dashing blue dress uniform with trousers strapped under highly polished shoes, and both have a stiff, gold-threaded collar and one raised hand (Burnaby holds a cigarette). Burnaby is languid and elegantissimo, with pointed mustache, plumed helmet, and gleaming breastplate. By contrast, the belly of Freud’s older brigadier bulges out from his unbuttoned jacket and, together with his bald head and blotchy face, suggests that he’s recovering from a drunken binge. Tissot uses the wide red stripe along the trousers to accentuate Burnaby’s dandified appearance. Freud’s model, far less at ease, reverses the pose. One portrait idealizes its subject, the other exposes its subject’s weakness.

Freud is secretive and wants to be feared—or at least “thought to be a bit formidable”—and his ex cathedra judgments are persuasive. He praises in Caravaggio’s Conversion of St. Paul “the jumble of human and animal limbs,” the bulging-veined legs and bare feet of the saint that appear between the shanks of the powerful horse. Freud provocatively calls St. Peter’s in Rome “the most expensive junk shop in the world.” He considers Matisse a greater painter than the “malevolent, absolutely poisonous” Picasso because Matisse was concerned with “the life of forms—which is what art is about, really,” while Picasso was out to “amaze, surprise, and astonish.” Freud especially admires the great draftsmen Ingres and Degas. But Gayford, mistakenly asserting that there was no English painter “of international consequence, except perhaps Walter Sickert” between the time of Turner and Constable and that of Bacon and Freud, ignores the superb English draftsman Wyndham Lewis.

Freud tells Gayford that “finishing well in a picture is of course the most important thing of all.... In the case of a book the end is least important because by that point the reader has absorbed almost everything the author has to say.” He particularly likes the novels of Gustave Flaubert, Henry James, and Thomas Hardy (even his most boring work). And he quotes George Orwell, in hospital and moribund, confessing that “when he was in pain he cheered himself up by imagining similar or worse things happening to people he disliked.” Freud—like Orwell, a supreme realist—also explains why he refuses to take drugs: “I don’t want to be out of this world, I want to be absolutely in it, all the time.”

Published in the 2011-05-06 issue: 

Thirty-two of Jeffrey Meyers’s books have been translated into fourteen languages and seven alphabets. He’s recently published Remembering Iris Murdoch (2013), Thomas Mann’s Artist-Heroes (2014), Robert Lowell in Love and The Mystery of the Real: Correspondence with Alex Colville (2016).

Also by this author
A Good Place to Work

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads