Lucian Freud, who died last year, still creating masterpieces at 88, was intensely private, rejecting the idea that an artist’s life mattered to his art. But Sigmund’s grandson, arguably the greatest portrait painter of his era, forged his closest bonds in his studio. With two major Freud retrospectives in view, David Kamp learns that those who sat for him—duchesses, drag queens, most of his women, and many of his children—will never forget what they discovered.
Lucian Freud’s final portrait is of a naked man and a dog. It is unfinished but otherwise betrays no sign of the agedness of its creator, who died last July 20, halfway through his 89th year. The scale is big, a square canvas of about five feet by five feet, and the brushwork is as sure and layered as in any painting he had ever done—smooth and free around the man’s shoulders, crusty and impastoed along the arms. The palette is Caucasian-fleshy from afar but remarkably varied and intricate up close: purples and greens in the man’s legs, vivid streaks of yellow in his right hand, rust and blue at the naughty bits.
For the last 57 years of his life, Freud painted standing up rather than sitting down; the physical restrictions of seated painting, he said, had begun getting him “more and more agitated” in the 1950s, so he kicked the chair away. Painting on his feet required extraordinary stamina, given Freud’s self-imposed work schedule: a morning session with one model, an afternoon break, and an evening session with another model, seven days a week, all year round. What’s more, these sessions had a tendency to stretch on: a deliberate worker, Freud took 6, 12, 18 months or longer to complete a painting, marathoning into the night if the mood struck. But he had stamina in spades. Painting was his workout; he took no other exercise, and yet photographs of him working shirtless in 2005, when he was 82, show him to be lean and all sinew, a jockey-size Iggy Pop.
But by June 2011, Freud recognized that his body was finally failing him, and that he had only so many brushstrokes left. The naked man in the portrait was completed, but the dog, a tan-and-white whippet, would never get its hind legs. Freud prioritized its head and face, adding a little dart of terre verte (“green earth”) mixed with umber to depict the tip of the animal’s pricked-up right ear. In early July, Freud was addressing the painting’s foreground: the folds and ripples in the sheet that covered the low platform upon which his two models sprawled. Here and there, as his energy permitted, he applied quick strokes of flake white, a thick, lead-heavy paint, to the lower part of the canvas.
That was as far as he got. Able to stand no longer, he at last retired to his bedroom, one floor up from the studio he kept in his Georgian town house in West London. As he lay in bed, friends and family gathered to pay their respects. There were many visitors from both categories. Freud had an otherworldly magnetism that his intimates struggle to put into words. Deborah Cavendish, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, once ascribed to him “a sort of starry quality … an extraordinary sort of mercurial thing. He’s like something not quite like a human being, more like a will-o’-the-wisp.” Over the course of his life he fathered 14 acknowledged children with six women. Among his nine daughters are the fashion designer Bella Freud and the novelist Esther Freud. Two weeks into their bedside vigil, he was gone.
Freud’s was not one of those postscript deaths, the final headline in a life that had long ago ceased to matter or progress. It was an interruption—the ultimate inconvenience for a man who still had plenty of work to do and plenty of people who wanted to see his work. The restaurateur Jeremy King, who was more than a hundred sittings into an uncompleted etching when Freud died—having already sat for a painting completed in 2007—recalls that the artist “never came to terms with the fact that he was slowing down. He constantly said, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ And I’d say, ‘Well, Lucian, you’re actually much more active than any other 68-year-old I know, let alone 88.’ And the moment he lifted his hands, most of his ailments seemed to melt away. The concentration and the adrenaline pushed him through.”
From his mid-60s onward, the pinochle years for most men his age, Freud had been enjoying a fruitful and vigorous late period. This wasn’t a function of critical recognition, though it happened to be in this period that critical favor finally smiled upon him, with Time’s Robert Hughes judging him “the best realist painter alive,” a sobriquet that stuck. Nor was it a matter of commercial success, though it was in 2008 that Freud’s Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995) fetched the highest-ever auction price for a painting by a living artist, selling at Christie’s to the Russian petrogarch Roman Abramovich for $33.6 million.
Freud simply did great work as an old man, some of his greatest. “In a sense, I think he knew this was his last big push at making some remarkable works. I could just see that he was really ambitious, pushing as hard as he could,” says the naked man in that final painting, David Dawson, the artist’s longtime assistant and the owner of Eli, the whippet star of several late paintings. (Freud had bestowed the dog upon Dawson as a Christmas present in 2000.) When Dawson started working for Freud, 20 years ago, the artist was in the middle of a series of nudes of the drag performer and demimonde fixture Leigh Bowery. Bowery was a huge man, lengthwise and girthwise, with a bald, oblong head—a lot to work with in terms of topography, physiognomy, and epidermal hectarage. Yet Freud went bigger still, painting Bowery larger than life-size. Freud had his canvases extended northward, eastward, and westward as it suited him; often, he would work the upper reaches of a painting from atop a set of portable steps.
An Island upon an Island
There were lots of big paintings in this late period: not just of Bowery and his clubgoing friend Sue Tilley, the heavyset welfare-agent-by-day of Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, but of more ordinarily proportioned people, such as Freud’s military-officer friend Andrew Parker Bowles. The seven-foot-tall portrait of Parker Bowles, The Brigadier, painted over 18 months of sittings between 2003 and 2004, was a playful experiment: Freud dispensing with his usual propensity for exposed flesh to do a Reynolds- or Gainsborough-style painting of a distinguished British gentleman in uniform—albeit with a characteristically lumpy, earthy, Freudian twist. “Lucian asked to paint me in the uniform I wore when I was a commander of the Household Cavalry,” says Parker Bowles, the former husband of Camilla and a former Silver Stick in Waiting to the Queen. “But it had been 20 years since I’d worn it, and I’d got fatter. So I undid my tunic and my stomach came out.”
The painting is magnificent—melancholy and funny at the same time: a military man resplendent in his beribboned coat with a gold-braid collar and his smart dark trousers with wide red stripes down the side, but with his face lost in thought (nostalgia? regret? ennui?) and his midsection asserting itself as the picture’s focal point. The placket down the middle of Parker Bowles’s white shirt divides his gut into two testicular bulges. “When I look in the mirror, I think, Not bad, but then I see the painting and hear people say things like ‘It shows the decline of the British Empire,’ ” says Parker Bowles. “Well, so be it.”
In addition to tackling the big canvases, Freud resumed making etchings late in life, returning to a form he’d left behind in his youth. He took on his share of small paintings, too, such as his neck-up portraits of King, David Hockney (2002), and a distinctly Broderick Crawford-resembling Queen Elizabeth II (2001).
At the time of his death, Freud was not only partway through the etching of King, whose restaurant the Wolseley he dined in several nights a week, but also well into his second painted portrait of Sally Clarke, whose restaurant-café, Clarke’s, a Notting Hill institution just down the road from his house, was where he took his breakfast and lunch nearly every day.
This overdrive work ethic was at once an acknowledgment of pending mortality and a hedge against it. Dawson marvels at what his boss managed to achieve. “The sheer volume, the scale,” he says. “He never rushed the work. But, my God, one great painting after another came out. He felt he could do it and he was able to. And this was his last chance.”
Despite standing only about five feet six, Freud was an imposing figure, with a fierce gaze often likened to a hawk’s, and a severe, aristocratic mien; even when painting, he always wore a long scarf, rakishly knotted at the neck. He was also an intensely private man who didn’t want his biography to inform people’s reception of his art. That he was the middle son of the youngest son of Sigmund Freud; that he had been born in 1922 in Berlin and moved with his family to England in 1933, the year Hitler became chancellor of Germany; that his acquaintances over the course of his life ran the gamut from Pablo Picasso to Alberto Giacometti to the Duke of Beaufort to the gangster Kray twins to Kate Moss; that he was a ladies’ man and an inveterate horseplayer—all irrelevant. An artist, he said, should appear in his work “no more than God in nature. The man is nothing; the work is everything.”
And, fair enough, one needn’t know anything about Freud to appreciate his pictures. Consider his mastery, in paintings ranging from Pregnant Girl (1960–61) to Naked Girl with Egg (1980–81) to Woman Holding Her Thumb (1992) to Naked Portrait (2004–5), of how bosoms sag and pool atop a recumbent woman’s chest—an unidealized view of womanhood that’s nevertheless almost feminist in its resistance to prescribed expectations of lady portraiture. Or consider the hyper-masculine whomp delivered by Head of a Big Man (1975), its middle-aged sitter’s florid, meaty noggin rising menacingly out of a pale-blue dress shirt like the head of a cranky tortoise out of its shell. These images may be unsparing, but they are not, as Freud’s detractors and even some of his admirers say, cruel and/or grotesque. Rather, they are intensive engagements with his models as living creatures, what their heads and bodies are like as blood, oxygen, and emotion circulate through them. They’re fun, amazing pictures to get lost in.
This year, two major retrospectives will give the British and American public an unprecedented opportunity for full-on Freud immersion. On February 9 the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition “Lucian Freud Portraits” opens in London as part of the city’s Cultural Olympiad run-up to the Summer Olympic Games. Featuring more than 130 pieces, it is the first Freud retrospective devoted exclusively to his depictions of people, and the artist was personally involved in its preparation—although, says the museum’s curator of contemporary art, Sarah Howgate, “He did say, ‘Well, I won’t be around in 2012.’ ” The “Portraits” show will move to Texas this summer, opening at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth on the second of July. And on February 17 the Blain/Southern gallery, in London, will unveil “Lucian Freud: Drawings,” the most comprehensive survey ever of Freud’s works on paper, presenting more than a hundred drawings and etchings from the 1940s to the near present. The “Drawings” retrospective will be at Blain/Southern through April 5 and then at Acquavella Galleries, in New York, from April 30 through the ninth of June.
It was with the National Portrait Gallery exhibition in mind that Freud dedicated himself to getting as far as he could on Portrait of the Hound, as the square painting of Dawson and Eli has come to be known. He had spent much of his career being deeply unfashionable, a figurative artist besotted with Constable and Titian as the midcentury world around him went Abstract Expressionist, Op, and Pop. Not that this ever seemed to affect him. While others in his cohort—such as the artist-illustrator John Minton, who was the subject of a gloomy, arresting Freud portrait in 1952 and took his own life in 1957—despaired of their irrelevance, Freud carried on, an island upon an island.
He did, however, undergo one major stylistic shift. His early works are coolly colored, draftsman-precise, and strictly two-dimensional—bereft of the fleshly qualities with which he would come to be identified. His late-40s paintings of his first wife, Kitty Garman, the daughter of the sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein, are wonderful in their own way but seemingly the work of some other artist: her face rendered with a rolling-pinned flatness, and every last frizz of her split-ended hair faithfully documented. But Freud’s friendship with the artist Francis Bacon, which began in the 1940s, prompted him to change his approach: “I think that Francis’s way of painting freely helped me feel more daring,” he said.
The new, free approach proved revelatory, not just to the artist but to his audience. The transitional Woman in a White Shirt, painted in 1956 and ’57, is a good example. Its subject was his friend the Duchess of Devonshire, née Deborah Mitford, the youngest of the Mitford sisters. But her English-rose beauty is hardly evident in the portrait, roiled as it is with swabs and swirls of drab color—“all greenish khaki,” as the now 91-year-old Dowager Duchess writes in her newest memoir, Wait for Me! Yet the wonder of it is, Freud’s painting, in its turbulent strokes and M.R.I.-like scrutiny, foretold the future: “As I have got older,” its subject writes, “so my likeness to the portrait grows.”
Freud’s brushwork would get only freer from there as he swapped out his soft sable brushes for stiff, bristly hog’s-hair ones that he would snip down to nubs. From the 60s forward, the paint got thicker, too—whorled, layered, and smeared as he laboriously built up form through color. Not uncoincidentally, Freud’s paintings became more sensual, increasingly if not exclusively focused on nude bodies.
Given Freud’s aversion to publicity and his emphasis on “the work,” it’s tempting to take him at his word and avoid any discussion of “the man.” Yet the truth is, who he was and what he was like were essential to how he went about this work.
The flip side of Freud’s fierceness was his magnetism, his profound charisma. Sebastian Smee, the Australian-born art critic for The Boston Globe and one of the select group of writers that Freud let into his life, describes the time he spent alone with the artist as having been charged with “a kind of emotional risk. At the back of your mind, I suppose, was always the sense that if you said something stupid or obnoxious or somehow deeply irritating to him you might leave and never be summoned again. And yet, countering this, there was the reality of this incredibly sensitive and deeply considerate person who, if he liked you, would forgive all manner of idiocies, extend you no end of courtesies, and, even better, extend you the great compliment of speaking his mind in front of you.”
And that’s from someone who never modeled for Freud. For those who did, he cast still more of a spell. His charisma was crucial to his method. It was what made his models bear happily the long ordeal of sitting for him, and therefore what afforded Freud the opportunity to observe his subjects at length—picking up on every twitch of a facial muscle, every iteration of how a subcutaneous layer of thigh fat bulged through a sitter’s skin.
“I was fascinated by his process,” says David Hockney. “He was slow. Very slow. I worked it out that I sat for him for 120 hours. And because he took a long, long time, we talked a lot: about our lives, people we knew in common, bitchy artist gossip. He wanted you to talk so he could watch how your face moved. He had these incredible eyes that sort of pierced into you, and I could tell when he was working on a specific part of my face, my left cheek or something. Because those eyes would be peering in: peering and piercing.”
The most comprehensive account of what it’s like to sit for Freud is Man with a Blue Scarf, an excellent book published in 2010 by the author and Bloomberg News art critic Martin Gayford. It chronicles, in journal style, the process by which Freud painted a portrait of Gayford over a succession of night sittings between November 2003 and July 2004. Somewhat early in the process, Gayford realizes what he is in for:
When he is really concentrating he mutters constantly, giving himself instructions: “Yes, perhaps—a bit,” “Quite!,” “No-o, I don’t think so,” “A bit more yellow.” Once or twice he is about to apply a stroke, then withdraws, considers again, then re-scrutinizes, measuring my face with little mapping movements of the brush, describing a small curve in the air or moving it upwards. The whole procedure is hugely deliberative. When I get up and stretch my legs after about forty minutes of work, despite what seemed to be plenty of vigorous activity with the brush, little seems to have changed on the canvas.
Freud liked to call himself a biologist at heart, and he applied himself to his work with the discipline and rigor of a scientist in a lab. Each day, he tore a clean piece of white cotton sheeting from the pile of rags he kept in the studio—decommissioned hotel sheets purchased in bulk from a recycling business—and tucked it under his belt to serve as an apron. He wiped his brush clean after each individual brushstroke, painstakingly remixing the colors on the heavy palette he held in his right hand. (Freud painted left-handed.)
Not that his workday was a pageant of solemnity. His subjects talk of the merriment and pampering that being a Freud sitter entailed: the Lucian-led sing-alongs of such standards as Cole Porter’s “Miss Otis Regrets” and Rodgers & Hart’s “Where or When”; the stories he shared of his youth and his bubbly times in 1950s Paris; the silly verse he recited from memory; the meals he’d spring for at the Wolseley and Clarke’s; the food he prepared himself, often woodcock, partridge, or snipe that Parker Bowles may have shot and sent up from the country.
There was an ulterior motive beyond sociability to all this lavishing of attention: “He would be watching you the whole time, so he’d get a bigger understanding of what he was painting,” says Dawson. The biologist in him wanted to subject the sitter to a variety of conditions: hungry, caffeinated, tired, peeved, slightly drunk.
“The time he used to like me most was if I had a hangover,” says Cozette McCreery, the subject of the painting Irish Woman on a Bed (2003–4), who met the artist while working as an assistant to his daughter Bella. “I asked, ‘Is that because I’ll just sit here and shut up?’ And he was like, ‘No, no, you have a sort of glow!’ ”
A favorite conversational topic of Freud’s during sittings, not at all taboo, was his paternal grandfather. Freud had warm personal memories of the old man, both from his childhood on the Continent and from Sigmund’s brief time in London, to which he fled in 1938, a year before his death. But Lucian was scathingly dismissive of psychoanalysis. To his sitters, he was fond of reciting this limerick, with its saucy double entendre at the end:
Those girls who frequent picture palaces
Have no use for this psychoanalysis
And although Dr. Freud
Is extremely annoyed
They cling to their long-standing fallacies.
McCreery remembers the glee with which Freud considered the idea that critics might look for Freudian-as-in-Sigmund resonance in his work. In the very strange picture in which she appears, she slouches, nude and semi-upright, on a rickety-looking wrought-iron bed, her calves resting upon a gashed pillow that is leaking feathers. Some white cherries rest on the bed beside her, a few of them seemingly floating up next to her thigh.
“He said, ‘I’m going to stab the pillow—I want feathers everywhere!’ And he just burst out laughing,” McCreery says. “I was like, ‘What’s so funny?’ And he said, ‘What would my ancestorhave made of this? A stabbed pillow and cherries!’ He actually hoped that it would cause a very obvious ripple somewhere along the line.”
Yet there is no avoiding the obvious parallels between the sitting process and psychotherapy: the regimented one-on-one sessions; the interplay between the observer and the sitter; the accumulated hours fraught with self-examination. “Literally, he would begin a conversation with ‘Tell me about your childhood,’ ” McCreery says.
“I learned an awful lot about myself,” says Jeremy King. “Not just by looking at the portrait, but talking to him, watching him, and just sitting there. Because, of course, it’s an incredibly meditative experience. You do feel quite exposed.”
The crucial difference from therapy was that the artist was the more active participant in the transaction, and, moreover, he had no obligation to observe professionally mandated boundaries. “I’d relish the chance to have such an intense and intimate experience,” says King, “and I could certainly understand why, with some of his models, particularly when he was younger, it would develop into more. Because it is very, very sensual.”
For his nudes, which Freud preferred to call naked portraits—“The word ‘nude’ implied to him an object, not a person,” says Dawson—the artist kept the heat cranked up. This was ostensibly in the interest of keeping his sitters comfortable, and it was certainly useful in keeping dog posers like Eli blissfully still for hours on end. But the radiator warmth also lent an overall air of languor and decadence to the poses of Freud’s naked human sitters, even as the studios in which he painted—in Paddington, Holland Park, and, finally, Notting Hill—appeared in the paintings exactly as they were: ratty, spare, and unsumptuous.
Freud’s women sitters were often lovers, or women who became his lovers, and, in some cases, lovers who became the mothers of his children. He had two children with his first wife, Kitty Garman, his daughters Annie and Annabel. He had none with his second wife, the society beauty Caroline Blackwood (later the wife of poet Robert Lowell), and never married again after they divorced, in 1958. But he had already carried on procreating, fathering a son, Alexander, in 1957 with a student at the Slade School of Fine Art named Suzy Boyt, the subject of his early new-style painting Woman Smiling (1958–59). Three more children with Boyt followed in the next 12 years: Rose, Isobel, and Susie. (Freud considered another child of Boyt’s, Kai, to be his stepson.) More or less concurrently, Freud had four children with Katherine McAdam, whom he had met when she was a student at St. Martin’s art college: Jane, Paul, Lucy, and David.
With another art student, Bernardine Coverley, Freud had Bella and Esther in the early 60s; his painting Pregnant Girl (1960–61) is effectively the “before,” capturing the topless, 18-year-old Coverley in tender repose, to the “after” of Baby on a Green Sofa (1961), in which baby Bella naps with arms outstretched and fists balled. With Lady Jacquetta Eliot, Countess of St. Germans—who lies nude in a bed behind the artist’s seated mother, Lucie, in Large Interior W9(1973)—Freud had a son, Freddie, born in 1971. And with the artist Celia Paul—like Coverley, the subject of a gentle portrait painted while she was expecting, in this case Girl in Striped Nightshirt (1985)—Freud had a son, Frank, who at 27 is the youngest of his children, with Annie, at 63, the eldest.
As raffishly bohemian as these arrangements may sound, it was no easy road for the women and children involved. Freud was selfish about his time—he unapologetically used the word—and had no interest in raising his children as a conventional father would; painting came first. There is a small shelf of literature by the Freud offspring that, directly or indirectly, acknowledges the fallout from having him as a father. Esther Freud, Rose Boyt, and Susie Boyt have written novels with autobiographical elements to them, while Annie Freud has published two collections of poems that, on occasion, nod slyly toward her father. The best known of these works is Esther’s Hideous Kinky, which is based on her and Bella’s experiences living in Morocco with their questing, proto-hippie mom, Coverley, as she tried to figure out her life in the 60s as a partnerless and still very young woman. (The novel, in which the girls’ father is a distant poet who occasionally sends money, was made into a 1998 film starring Kate Winslet in the mother role.)
Even so, all of Freud’s children save the McAdams, whose mother took an unromantic view of his infidelity and cut off communication with the artist, wound up sitting for him. In a 2004 documentary about Freud’s sitters directed by Jake Auerbach, the son of Freud’s best artist friend, the painter Frank Auerbach, some of the younger Freuds reflected on the experience. “You have a choice, and not all of his children have made it, from very young, that you can get the good bit if you want to accept what he’s like. Or you can not get it by being angry for him not being like someone else’s father,” said Esther. “When I was 16, I moved to London, and almost immediately I started to sit for him. And it was a really lovely way to get to know him because until then I hadn’t ever lived in the same city as him.”
Rose Boyt, whose novels Sexual Intercourse and Rose betray a darker sensibility than Esther’s, recalled in the film the circumstances under which Freud’s extraordinary portrait of her, also called Rose (1978–79), came about. It’s an atypical Freud nude, of a pissed-off-looking college-aged girl lying on a couch with one leg planted on the floor and the other folded up tight with tension, her right heel jammed against her right buttock. “I didn’t want to feel floppy and soggy. I wanted to feel ‘I’m just about to spring into action,’ ” Rose said. “I could have been extremely, extremely, extremely angry. And I wasn’t. And I felt that there was a potential for me to suddenly get up and say, ‘Look, fuck off! I’m not doing this anymore!’ or ‘Where were you when I needed you, you bastard?’ And I think he maybe was a little bit worried in case I was suddenly going to actually spring up and protest.”
Yet his children generally seemed to accept that sitting for Freud was the way to have a fulfilling relationship with their father. With further hindsight, Rose’s feelings about the sitting experience have grown warmer. “Sitting for Rose was an education,” she writes via e-mail. “I mean literally—my father taught me about Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot in particular, and I became so interested in books I decided to go to university.” The sessions for the portrait went as late as four in the morning, she says, and “often, once he had finished, my father just chucked a blanket over me and I slept on the sofa in the studio until morning when I went off to college.”
The eldest of Freud’s sons, Alexander Boyt, known in the family as Ali, sat at three very different junctures in his life: as one of the two elfin moppets (the other being Rose) huddled at the feet of their outsize father in one of his most iconic paintings, Reflection with Two Children (Self-Portrait) (1965); as a spaced-out 70s longhair in Ali (1974); and as a pensive, necktied grown man in The Painter’s Son, Ali (1998).
“The memories of stories told and ideas expressed when sitting are the bits that warm me most,” writes Ali, now a services officer for drug and alcohol abusers in North London, in an e-mail. “The talking about women and love and the Pope. The brilliant and ludicrous ‘There is only so much hypocrisy I allow myself’ and ‘All I know about love is that you’d rather have a miserable time with someone you love than a nice time with someone you don’t care about.’ I once apologized to Dad for something I did, and he replied, ‘That’s nice of you to say, but it doesn’t work like that. There is no such thing as free will. People just have to do what they have to do.’ ”
(The Freud children contacted for this article declined to be interviewed in person, out of grief as much as respect for their father’s privacy. Four of them are in double mourning. Garman, known later in life as Kitty Godley, died in January 2011 at the age of 84. Coverley passed away just four days after Freud, and just two weeks after receiving a surprise diagnosis of advanced cancer. She was only 68.)
Leigh Bowery, uninhibited soul that he was, didn’t shy away from being nosy about this family stuff when he interviewed Freud for an underground arts magazine called Lovely Jobly in 1991. “When did you get the idea of working from your naked grown-up daughters?” he asked.
“When I started painting naked people,” Freud replied.
“I can’t think of another artist who has done that. It must make things, well, slightly extreme,” said Bowery.
“My naked daughters have nothing to be ashamed of,” Freud said.
Seven Days a Week
Freud was just about to enter his 70s when Bowery interviewed him, but he was already aware of the clock’s ticking. He talked bluntly of a new penchant for working still-longer hours “as I’ve gotten weaker,” and expressed a fear that if he slept too much or worked too little “I might stiffen up and not be able to get up again.”
It was around this time that Dawson came into his life, a soft-spoken, imperturbable struggling artist who grew up in rural Scotland and Wales and was earning money working for Freud’s then dealer, James Kirkman. Dawson started taking on menial tasks for Freud as a “run-around boy,” he says. Freud shortly thereafter had a falling-out with Kirkman but kept Dawson in the breakup. “I suppose we just liked each other’s company,” Dawson says. “I probably came along at the right time and made sure that all he had to worry about was painting.”
In 1992, Freud sought out the New York art dealer William Acquavella for a lunch, keen to have Acquavella represent him. Acquavella, whose gallery is situated in a large town house on the Upper East Side and specializes in secondary-market sales of big-name dead artists, was surprised at the overture. “I was more into Picasso, Matisse, Miró,” he says. “And I’d heard that Lucian was difficult. But we met, and I went to his studio and saw all these huge Leigh Bowery paintings he’d been working on. I was knocked out and I bought them all. We couldn’t have been more different, but from then on I represented Lucian and we became good friends. It was all handshake. We never had a piece of paper between us.”
Like Dawson, Acquavella took care of things so that Freud, in the homestretch of his life, could focus on painting. The artist alerted his new dealer to the small matter of some gambling debts he had accrued. Acquavella met with Freud’s bookie, Alfie McLean, who owned a chain of betting shops in Northern Ireland. McLean also happened to be the imposing “Big Man” of Head of a Big Man and its related paintings, The Big Man (1976–77) and The Big Man II (1981–82). McLean, indulgent though he was of Freud—who, in keeping with the familial spirit with which he approached his sitters, had also painted pictures of McLean’s grown sons—told Acquavella that the painter owed him $4.6 million. Acquavella not only settled the debt but started selling Freud’s new paintings at six- and seven-figure prices, making the artist, for the first time in his life, a rich man.
“Once he started making money, he didn’t gamble anymore,” says Acquavella. “He said, ‘It’s not fun when you have the money. It’s only fun when you have no money.’ ”
The older Freud got, the more circumscribed his world became, seldom taking him beyond his circuit of the studio, Clarke’s, the Wolseley, and another favorite dinnertime haunt, the Italian restaurant Locanda Locatelli. He needed to keep painting. Freud had always been an acutely impatient man outside of his workplace, known for walking heedlessly into fast-moving traffic and careering down narrow London roads at terrifying speeds in his old Bentley. (Ali Boyt: “My friend says I drive like a 15-year-old in a stolen car. Dad was the only one who thought I drove well.”) Advanced age did not mellow Freud in this regard. Alexi Williams-Wynn, one of his later models, recalls that “the speed with which I entered his life and began sitting was, I think, very characteristic of him—highly impulsive, urgent, impatient towards anything beyond his life in the studio.”
Williams-Wynn, 50 years Freud’s junior, was studying sculpture at the Royal Academy. She wrote him a fan letter and, to her surprise, received an invitation from the artist to meet for a cup of tea. He asked her on the spot to begin sitting for him, for what became Naked Portrait(2004–5). Shortly into this experience, they became lovers. “I wasn’t taking it seriously at first—I was fully aware of the age difference,” she says, “but I fell in love with him. It was sort of out of my hands.”
Freud had been working at the time on a large self-portrait in his Holland Park space, a sixth-floor walk-up that he kept as a satellite to his Notting Hill base of operations—its walls scenically crusted with years of palette-knife wipe-offs, producing an effect somewhere between seagull guano and action painting. Deciding that the picture was too much of an artist-in-his-atelier cliché, he reconceptualized it so that Williams-Wynn took a prominent role. The painting, the last he ever did in Holland Park, was titled The Painter Surprised by a Naked Admirer. It shows Freud pausing before a canvas with brush in hand, stooped and somewhat befuddled, as the comely Williams-Wynn wraps her unclothed body around his legs, a rapturous expression on her face.
Naked Admirer was technically tricky to execute, especially since the painting Freud is putatively at work on within the picture is of the same image as the real painting: Williams-Wynn wrapping herself around him in the studio—one of those eternal-mirroring mind-warps. To paint it, Freud had to look at his and his model’s reflections in a mirror across the room, disentangle himself from Williams-Wynn, and pivot to the canvas, painting from memory what he had just glimpsed. Then back to positions for the next brushstroke.
“I quickly found myself sitting seven days a week, night and day. This lasted a year,” says Williams-Wynn. “We were lovers, so the situation seemed quite normal in a heightened, exhilarating kind of way.” Yet when the sittings for the two paintings ended, so, effectively, did the affair—a disorienting experience that, Williams-Wynn admits, took a long time to get over. Still, she says, “being with Lucian made me realize that this is no joke: being an artist, being alive. It also made me understand that selfishness is what it takes to make great art.”
King describes a similar lesson learned. “I always thought ‘selfish’ was a pejorative term,” he says, “but what he basically said is ‘I am what I am. This is what I like to do. If you want to fit in with that, you’re very welcome to come into my life. But don’t try and make me something I’m not.’ That form of selfishness I respected a great deal, because there’s a strong honesty about it.”
Running Out of Time
Last April, Freud completed his final naked portrait of a woman, an artist in her 20s named Perienne Christian. Freud found her through her tutor at the Prince’s Drawing School, from which she had recently graduated. It was a platonic relationship, but, inevitably, one that evolved into something as intimate as the artist-sitter relationships that had come before it. “He was extremely aware of running out of time and wanting to do so much more,” says Christian. “We did talk about death towards the end. He was frustrated by his mortality.”
And there was still Portrait of the Hound to work on. It was actually Dawson’s fourth double portrait with a dog. The first was Sunny Morning—Eight Legs (1997), in which he nestled on a bed with Freud’s own whippet, Pluto. Freud, mischievously, resolved the issue of achieving pictorial balance by painting a second set of Dawson’s legs underneath the bed, a choice that required Dawson, ever the model of selflessness, to lie for hours, nude, under the furniture.
Then came the epic David and Eli (2003–4), labeled upon its unveiling a “masterpiece” by Robert Hughes, who couldn’t help noting, given the tricks Freud plays with perspective, that Dawson’s scrotum appears “larger than the pillow behind his head,” and Eli and David (2005–6), which reveals Freud, he of the supposedly clinical, unflinching gaze, at his sweetest. Dawson sits serene and shirtless in a wing chair, Eli in his lap. Dawson’s arms and shoulders are stroked with cold off-whites, but his face and sternum are red, flush with the warmth that Eli, nodding off, provides like a hot-water bottle.
Freud never painted to elicit responses of “Awww!,” but he was not averse to sentiment. There’s a similar sweetness evident in Last Portrait of Leigh, a painting of Bowery’s slumberous head, no bigger than a sheet of A4 paper, that Freud completed shortly after Bowery died of H.I.V.-related illness on New Year’s Eve in 1994. If sitting was a way for his children to develop a closeness to Freud, so was painting a way for Freud, if he so chose, to develop a closeness to his sitters. Notwithstanding his insistence that “the man is nothing” in the finished art, the creation of this art was everything to the man: Freud’s way of relating to the world, the people he encountered in it, and, indeed, the people he put in it. “My work,” he said, “is purely autobiographical. It is about myself and my surroundings. It is an attempt at a record. I work from people that interest me, and that I care about and think about, in rooms that I live in and know.”