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Art and Images in Psychiatry
May 2013

Lucian Freud's Reflection (Self-Portrait)

Author Affiliations


JAMA Psychiatry. 2013;70(5):455-456. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2013.370

My work is purely autobiographical. It is about myself and my surroundings. It is an attempt at a record. I work with people that interest me, and that I care about and think about, in rooms that I live in and know.—Lucian Freud1(p7)

Lucian Freud (1922-2011), grandson of Sigmund Freud, is considered to be the leading realist painter of the last century. His father Ernst Freud, an architect, was the 4th of Sigmund Freud's 6 children and was the youngest son. Lucian grew up in Berlin, Germany, far from the influence of the birthplace of psychoanalysis in Vienna, Austria. Grandfather Sigmund visited Lucian's family in Berlin regularly during his childhood, and he also came to Berlin for treatment of a malignant squamous cell carcinoma of the palate. Sigmund gave his grandson Lucian an illustrated version of The Arabian Nights and Brueghel prints, and read comic strips (Max and Moritz) with him, facilitating Lucian's interest in art.1,2 Living in Berlin in 1930 as an 8-year-old German Jew, Lucian learned of discrimination when he was told he was not eligible for the Hitler Youth.3

Lucian Freud (1922-2011), English. Reflection (Self-Portrait), 1985. Oil on canvas, 56.2 × 51.2 cm. © 2013 The Lucian Freud Archive/Bridgeman Art Library.

When Hitler came to power as chancellor of Germany in January 1933 and began his anti-Semitic crusade, Ernst Freud moved his family to London, England. Lucian was 11 years old at the time of the move and had to make the difficult transition to a new country and to a new language. Grandfather Sigmund Freud remained in Germany until 1938. It was only after Germany invaded Austria and his daughter Anna was interrogated by the Gestapo that Freud reluctantly agreed to leave Vienna for London with his wife and daughter. Lucian visited with his grandfather in London and was photographed with him in the last year of Sigmund Freud's life. He fondly remembered joking with his grandfather. Of Sigmund Freud's books, Lucian liked Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious best.2

Lucian Freud insisted that it was Sigmund Freud as biologist, not as psychologist, that appealed to him.4 He commented on Sigmund's early research with Austrian Darwinist Professor Karl Claus seeking to identify the male reproductive organ in eels and his studies with renowned physiologist Ernst Brück.

Lucian Freud said that his art emphasized man's animal nature.1 His focus on nakedness in both male and female models is antithetical to the aesthetically beautiful “nude” in art as classically described by Kenneth Clark.5 The distinction between naked and nude is central to Clark's discussion. Clark writes that “to be naked is to be deprived of our clothes, and the word implies some of the embarrassment most of us feel in that condition,”5(p23) but that the nude is balanced and confident. “[I]n the greatest age of painting, the nude inspired the greatest works.”5(p23) For Clark, the nude as a conceptual and artistic category always involved the notion of an ideal abstracted from the reality that we confront in our everyday lives.5 He wrote that, in art, “[w]e do not wish to imitate; we wish to perfect.”5(p26)

Lucian Freud acknowledged that he painted naked people; he did not paint nudes. Indicative of his attitude toward nakedness, in 1964, Freud assigned his students at the Norwich College of Art in Norfolk, England, to create naked self-portraits. He asked them to “try and make it the most revealing, telling and believable object. Something really shameless you know.”6(p32) Despite this rejection of the ideal, Freud's stark realism, stylistic development, and technical virtuosity were celebrated as offering a new approach to realism in portrait art. Still his work remained controversial. His self-portraits and those of his subjects are visceral, almost tactile, thickly impastoed portraits and figure paintings that document his fascination with flesh and its contours. As his work matured, he incorporated broader strokes and used a more restricted palette of colors that emphasized thickly applied white and deep red colors.

Because Freud stood when he painted, his figures often appear foreshortened. He preferred not to use professional models as his subjects. Instead, his models were people from all walks of life whom he knew, including his adult daughters, who found that posing for him was one of the only ways to spend time with him and to get to know him as a father. Despite his ongoing banter with those who posed for him as he worked, his stern scrutiny of their bodies was often discomforting and unsettling. Freud believed that his paintings were not like people but of people whom he carefully observed. Yet some have suggested that the melancholy realism of his paintings is more informative of his view of humanity than reflective of his subjects.

Lucian Freud created self-portraits throughout his lifetime. As the years passed, his work increasingly looked inward, especially his self-portraits. Illustrative of his evolving approach, in the early 1960s when he was in his early 40s, his harsh gaze was apparent in self-portrait heads. Some looked outward and others downward scrutinizing the viewer. In the mid-1960s, he created the best known of his early self-portraits, Reflection With Two Children (Self-Portrait) (Figure). It is a night painting that is lit by ceiling lights. It shows figures reflected from a mirror placed on the floor, creating an awkward point of view. Two of his 4 children, Alexander and Rose, are shown. Their mother was Suzy Boyt, his pupil at Slade Art School in London. The children appear like dolls in the foreground, apparently unaware of their colossal father standing above them. In Interior With Plant, Reflection Listening (1967-1968), he appears naked in a garden with his hand cupped over his right ear, listening. There followed a hiatus in self-portraiture that lasted until the 1980s. Then, in his 60s, in Naked Portrait With Reflection (1980), he reveals only his legs and feet standing behind a naked woman with large distorted breasts who is lying on a tattered couch. In Reflection (Self-Portrait) (1981-1982), he presents himself in profile with a leering snakelike gaze reminiscent of Mephistopheles. In Two Irishmen in WW11 (1984-1985), his image is obscured, appearing only in 2 small unfinished paintings resting against the back wall.

Figure.Reflection With Two Children (Self- Portrait), Lucian Freud. 1965. Oil on canvas, 91 × 91 cm. Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Madrid, Spain. © 2013 The Lucian Freud Archive/Bridgeman Art Library.

In 1985, Lucian Freud completed one of his best-known self-portraits, the introspective Reflection (Self-Portrait) (cover). It demonstrates the virtuosity of his technique. The viewer has the sense of his bony weight. His gaze is no longer focused outward as before but now seems inward and unfocused. Perhaps he is deep in thought or uncertain. The self-portrait is painted in bright light, with his head casting a deep shadow over his chest. The flesh of his face and chest are seemingly constructed from contrasting shadows, olive green against the pale pink of his skin with dramatic highlights. One ear is in shadow, and the other in light. His head seems to come forward, apparently moving off the canvas and into the viewer's personal space. The play of warm and cool coloring draws the viewer into this moment of self-reflection.

Freud continued with self-portraiture into his 70s. His Painter Working, Reflection (1993) is a full-length frontal portrait of a naked defiant old man wearing unlaced boots who is holding up his paintbrush in his right hand like a weapon, with his palate held in his left like a shield.6 It is a brutally honest painting of his aging body. Yet, in his final individual self-portrait at 80 years of age in 2002, which is reminiscent of Rembrandt's final self-portrait,7 Freud is dressed but reveals his bare chest under his jacket. His left hand holds a scarf around his neck. The veins on his left hand stand out, producing a dynamic effect. He stands in front of a wall in his studio. His gaze is muted now, his expression reflective. There is a sense of stillness in this last self-portrait. The wall behind him is encrusted with the paint that he has wiped on it over the years. He seems engulfed by it, at one with the dense coloring that has been so much a part of his life as an artist.

Although Lucian Freud is known as a portrait painter who painted many well-known people, including Queen Elizabeth II and supermodel Kate Moss, he more often painted neighbors, family members, friends, and lovers. He was not a society portraitist like John Singer Sargent. He did not seek to flatter; his portraits are generally stark and often unsettling, especially when showing detailed full frontal nakedness and distorted postures in both male and female models. He did not rely on photographic images of his subjects, as do many portrait artists. He remained in the room with his subjects as he painted them, intensely observing and noting his interactions with them; his paintings incorporate those relationships. Remarkably, his 1995 portrait of Sue Tilley, a morbidly obese woman who is lying naked on a couch, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, sold in 2008 for 33.6 million dollars, a world-record auction price for a living artist.

As a youth, Lucian Freud was both curious and willful. He was expelled from his high school for dropping his trousers in public on a bet. He did not apply himself academically in school and was fortunate that his artistic talent was recognized early on, allowing him to enter art school after his expulsion. In his later years, he was known as a gambler. He had a notorious temper and had many falling-outs with his friends.

Freud was married twice; both marriages ended in divorce. He had 2 children with his first wife and at least 12 other children with his various mistresses; several of them were his art students. Like his grandfather, he was unsentimental, and objective in his work, and concerned about self-deception. Sigmund Freud insisted on the reality principle in his personal psychology, but Lucian painted bodily reality, and without flinching. Both valued closely detailed observation. If Sigmund was the biologist of the mind, Lucian was the biologist of art.

Sigmund Freud died at the age of 83, after 16 years of suffering from pain resulting from a malignant oral epithelioma that required more than 30 surgical procedures. In the end, when Sigmund Freud decided that his pain and suffering were too great, he asked his doctor to alert his daughter Anna that he had asked for a lethal dose of morphine to be administered. Sigmund Freud died peacefully on September 23, 1939, after Dr Max Schur,8 his longtime personal physician, administered the overdose of morphine that Freud had requested. Reflecting on this bereavement, Lucian Freud remembered his grandfather's disfigured face and the hole in his cheek from cancer surgery that he said was the reason no death mask was made. Unlike his grandfather, Lucian remained in reasonable health until his late 80s. In 2006, he enthusiastically agreed that a retrospective exhibit of his portraits be displayed as part of the 2012 Olympic Game events in London and looked forward to attending. But he did not live to see the exhibit. He continued to actively paint until his death at the age of 88 on July 20, 2011, following a brief illness.

Lucian Freud set one final record for an artist after his death when he left an estate valued at $156 million to be administered by one his daughters and his lawyer. Bedridden at the end of his life, he was visited by family members and, through those meetings, was reconciled with them before his death.

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Clark K. The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form (Bollingen Series 35.2). New York, NY: Pantheon Books; 1956
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