A gallery assistant adjusts 'Reflection' by Lucian Freud during a press preview for 'Reflections on the Self', an exhibition of self portraiture at Christie's Mayfair.

The unrelenting vision of Lucian Freud

The British artist pushed his life and art to the limit
August 28, 2020

Towards the end of his life, Lucian Freud attended the 80th birthday party of a friend, where a little girl was told not to touch him. “I’m not an object,” he protested. Perhaps she’d mistaken him for one of his portraits, because over the previous decades no artist had been better at manipulating canvas and paint to give the illusion of real human bodies, stilled lives. Everything about a self-portrait like Reflection (1985), from its intent pink-rimmed eyes to the shiny patch on its forehead, makes it look as if it is not a painting but a person, who is on the verge of leaning out of the frame to touch the viewer—though whether to kiss them or headbutt them it is hard to say.

All portraits are more than simple objects. A portrait is the representation of one body that has been created by the touch of another; it is a silent duet, a stationary pas de deux. That is why, in Freud’s view, not everyone was a suitable subject to be painted by him. It is also why, according to William Feaver in the superb second volume of this eye-opening biography, Freud’s quest for people to be persuaded or seduced into sitting for him never ceased. Actually there usually wasn’t much sitting involved once Freud had managed to get you into his studio. Most models were expected to remove their clothes and splay themselves on a bed or a pile of rags, often holding uncomfortable poses for hours at a time. And if they were young and female Freud didn’t restrict himself to touching up their portraits. Sometimes he would come close and fondle their bones and muscles like “a trainer in a racing stable running a hand idly over brisket and withers.” At other times he went further still. “To sit was to serve, more often than not in more than one capacity,” Feaver writes, evenly.

Some models failed to return once they realised that, although Freud was fascinated by their bodies, their own names would never appear in any catalogue or gallery; they were merely a way for the portrait to achieve its own form of independent life. Others had to accept that he was going to depict what he really saw rather than perpetuate a more flattering public image of them. Supermodel Kate Moss was painted while she was pregnant, and at the base of her real spine Freud tattooed her with two swallows set like inverted commas. (“An original Freud,” she boasted, adding that if the modelling work dried up “I could get a skin graft and sell it.”) A small portrait of the Queen was commissioned after Freud was awarded the Order of Merit in 1993, capturing a face that appeared to be at once eminently practical and unexpectedly fond of sly jokes. (Both of these characteristics were revealed when the Queen was reported to have said that she stayed as silent as she could during the sittings, “Because when he talks he stops painting.”)


Alongside these star models there were ordinary people like the picture framer Louise Liddell, painted as Woman Holding Her Thumb (1992). She once cursed God for her fat ankles, whereupon Freud said “I thank God for them.” There were also plenty of approaches from strangers volunteering their services. “A man wrote to me and said, ‘I’m sure you’d like to paint me because I have no ears, despite which I’m a vicar,’” Freud told Feaver. And of course there were chance encounters with potential models he spotted in bars or clubs, such as a “rather amazing girl with a sore part under her nose as if she’d been up to something,” whom Freud thought that getting to know would be “rather exhilarating.”

There are echoes here of the first volume of Feaver’s biography, which was packed with good stories about Freud’s rackety private life and rollicking friendships with fellow artists like Francis Bacon. The same elements are also present in this second volume, including some splendid vignettes of Freud kicking a gallery owner he disliked (“Treated it like a penalty kick: just a quick below-the-kneecap”) and trying to deal with the many children he had sired over the years, not all of whom he “recognised,” as Feaver neatly puts it. The main difference is that here these stories are little more than bits of highlighting, like the patch of shiny skin in Reflection. Instead the focus throughout this volume is on Freud’s daily routine in his studio: a spacious top-floor flat in 36 Holland Park, where two or three different scenes could be arranged under the skylight at any one time, and where the walls gradually filled up with paint scraping and scribbled phone numbers. If Feaver’s first volume was a portrait of the artist playing around, here the main focus is Freud at work.

Sometimes, Feaver reports, when a painting was nearing completion, Freud would step back from the canvas and “as though taunting himself” would murmur “How far can you go?” It is a question that goes to the heart of his career. In his younger days it had encouraged him to steal from his parents and gamble money that wasn’t his to stake. Now that he was an established artist the main uncertainty was what would happen each time he started a new work.

It was a wager that he was always in danger of losing, and his studio filled with abandoned canvases bearing only a few experimental smudges of paint. His etchings were riskier still, because each time an image was scratched into the metal plate and dipped, there was the chance that it could become a blurry mess. Even the paintings he carried on with were surprisingly unpredictable until he decided that they were finished, and Feaver does an excellent job of letting us look over Freud’s shoulder as he goes about his work in the studio. Impulses are explored and later painted out; tiny physical details are given the attention usually reserved for whole lives (“Got up at half past four with the intention of doing the handle on the easel,” in The Painter Surprised by a Naked Admirer); extra strips of canvas are attached to widen the original painting, as his model stretches out and Freud tries to give them enough space to be themselves: “Allow the life full swing.”

The finished painting was not a vision that had been realised, like an architectural plan that had become a real building. Instead it depicted a relationship that had developed over the weeks or months Freud and his model had spent together. As David Hockney astutely observed of the portrait Freud painted of him in 2002, “It’s not me; it’s an account of looking at me by a very intelligent and skilled painter.” Sometimes these relationships lasted a lifetime, like the astonishing series of portraits Freud produced of his mother, in which the longer he spent in her company the further she seemed to withdraw inside her own head; or they unfolded over several years, as in Freud’s portraits of the performance artist Leigh Bowery, a man who somehow combined the bulk of a heavyweight wrestler with the grace and poise of a ballet dancer. At other times they did not unfold so much as unravel, as when Freud tried to include the model Jerry Hall in a group portrait, and later painted over her to turn her into a man after she failed to turn up to all the sittings he had demanded.

Another comment by Hockney about portrait-painting—“It’s a duration, not a moment”—might also be applied to the most important relationship in this book, between Freud and his biographer. As a young art critic Feaver first got to know Freud in 1973, and it wasn’t long before his life was caught up in the painter’s slipstream. They would talk regularly on the phone, sometimes more than once a day (“Hello, Villiam. How goes it?”), and as Feaver assembled a record of these conversations it seems that the notoriously private Freud gradually reconciled himself to the appearance of a biography in which he would not be analysed too much—throughout his life the ghost of his grandfather Sigmund continued to hang heavily over the family—and would usually be allowed the last word.


What kind of book did he expect? Apparently in conversation he referred to it as Feaver’s “funny art book,” and like the first volume this second instalment contains some excellent stories. We are told about Freud posing a Japanese laboratory rat after first tranquillising it with champagne and sleeping pills; Freud dealing with difficult social situations by reciting chunks of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” to himself; Freud’s neck-craning response to a traffic accident outside his studio: “I hoped there’d be arms and legs lying around. I need that for something.” The main narrative is also punctuated by Freud’s waspish one-liners, which Feaver reports with neutral relish. On Mother Theresa: “Not someone to sit next to at lunch.” On his brother Clement: “We never got on. He’s dead now. Always was, actually.” For the most part Feaver seems happy to act as Freud’s comic stooge, giving his friend the best lines and only occasionally adding an aside of his own, as when he reports Freud’s confident claim that “I like ironing. Everyone does,” before quietly adding in parenthesis: “[This from someone who had rarely, if ever, used an ironing board.]”

The jokes are important, because although it is a common assumption that artists lead tragic lives—garrets, starvation, doomed love affairs and so on—as seen through Feaver’s eyes Freud’s life was more like a comedy. That wasn’t just because it was a story with a happy ending, as the prices of his paintings grew from tens of thousands to millions of pounds, accompanied by retrospective shows at venues like the Centre Pompidou and the Tate, and including frequent trips on Concorde or his New York dealer’s private jet. It is also because throughout Freud seems to have behaved like a modern clown: a figure who was driven by strong appetites, told the truth when it was uncomfortable or unwanted, and used paint to play a complicated game in which self-revelation was strangely mixed up with self-disguise.

The main difference, of course, is that clowns never seem to age, whereas at the time that Freud complained “I’m not an object,” his spark was already starting to fade. It is painful to read about someone’s decline in a biography and especially so when the subject was as full of life—and of lives—as Freud. From the earliest signs of approaching old age, which took the form of arthritic pains in one shoulder, to the final months of cancer and mental confusion leading up to his death in 2011, Freud’s decline is outlined by Feaver in the unsentimental way his subject would probably have wanted. There are even echoes of Freud’s unfinished portraits in the way Feaver spaces out the final years, producing the narrative equivalent of physical gaps left on an abandoned canvas. The result is a biography that is as generous and unsparing as Freud’s own best work. At once personally intimate and critically detached, perceptive on the art (his summary of one etching is that the model has “the look of one who rather thought she’d just forgotten something frightfully important”) but never trying to compete with it, Feaver’s biographical portrait is an unforgettable achievement.

In the end he also recognises that his subject will unavoidably slip through his fingers. Soon after they first met, Freud appeared at Feaver’s front door looking tense and asking for him. They arranged to meet again the next day, before Freud “paused on the step as though deciding what further to say then turned and vanished into the dark.” At the time it might have seemed merely shy or elusive. Now it reads more like an allegory of the biographical enterprise.

The Lives of Lucian Freud: Fame 1968-2011 by William Feaver (Bloomsbury, £24.50)