The young widowed actress and the 16-year old artist first met in 1947 while working together on a production at the Unity Theatre. Stella, a mother of three, was scraping by running a boarding house in Earl’s Court, where the young Auerbach would live shortly thereafter. In spite of the age difference, the attraction was instantaneous and mutual, and Stella West quickly became the painter’s lover and main subject. Sessions for the young Auerbach were already extremely demanding at the time - and, as Stella recalls, his practice was “very violent and quite in a world of his own; quite frightening in the beginning” (Estella West quoted in William Feaver, Frank Auerbach, New York 2009, p. 11).
As she sat for him for endless sessions, several times a week, even after he married Julia Wolstenholme in 1958, Stella West’s unshakable sense of commitment undoubtedly helped Auerbach develop his aesthetic eye by allowing him to put her features under such strict, almost brutal scrutiny year after year. “If anyone, early on, helped him manage his sense of the world, it was Stella West. This would have a deep effect on his art. His need for stability within the threatening flux of experience would be absorbed, through E.O.W.’s constant presence as a subject, into the very marrow of his painting and projected on his habits of work” (Robert Hughes, Frank Auerbach, London 1990, p. 90). Indeed, the shift from the dense, angular sweeps of buttery pigment present in the early E.O.W. paintings to the increasingly fluid and dynamic works from his later years testifies of the importance of the artistic dialogue between model and painter. With its wonderfully delicate outlines rendered in soothing blues and pristine whites, Portrait of E.O.W. is the result of the years of methodical effort, routine scrutiny and incessant repetition necessary to reach such a level of trust and familiarity. As Catherine Lampert, another of Auerbach’s long-standing sitters, recalls: “Between 1961 and 1973 the paintings of Stella move through a process of what psychologists (and art historians) call displacement. The liquidity of the paint is at the centre of something almost alchemical in its ability to express feeling […] The brush strokes, in contrast to mass, manage to convert us, almost like a stigmatism to truth. Rembrandt and Titian’s late tonal paintings guided him, yet he began to act in a modern idiom, open to pungent attacks on our nerves as well as our acceptance of ‘disorder’” (Catherine Lampert, “Auerbach and his Sitters” in Exhibition Catalogue, London, Royal Academy of Art, Frank Auerbach: Paintings and Drawings 1952-2001, 2001, p. 25).
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