John F. Parks, London
Sotheby’s, London, British Impressionist and Post-Impressionist and Modern Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, 25 May 1983, Lot 216
Anthony d’Offay Gallery, London
Acquired from the above by the present owner in September 1983
London, Hayward Gallery; Bristol, Bristol Art Gallery; Birmingham, Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery; and Leeds, Leeds City Museum and Art Gallery, Lucian Freud, 1974, p. 48, no. 80, illustrated
Washington D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; Paris, Musée National d’Art Moderne; London, Hayward Gallery; and Berlin, Neue Nationalgalerie, Lucian Freud: Paintings, 1987-88, p. 47, no. 21, illustrated in colour
London, Tate Britain, Lucian Freud, 2002, n.p., no. 46, illustrated in colour
London, National Portrait Gallery, Lucian Freud: Portraits, 2012, no. 30
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Lucian Freud, 2013-14, p. 161, no. 10, illustrated in colour
Bruce Bernard and Derek Birdsall, Eds., Lucian Freud, London 1996, n.p., no. 94, illustrated in colour
William Feaver, Lucian Freud, New York 2007, n.p., no. 97, illustrated in colour
Lucian Freud, 'Some Thoughts on Painting', Encounter, Vol. III, No. 1, 1954, p. 24.
Beautiful, sensuous, and full of emotive depth Pregnant Girl is an astonishing and defining image in Freud’s œuvre. Depicting his lover of the time, Bernadine Coverley, asleep and pregnant with their first daughter Bella, Freud has captured the delicate poise of her turned head, sumptuous curves of her body and thick dark hair, through a virtuosity of looping, arching brush-strokes to deliver a painting full of impulse, fullness of form and exacting honesty. In this entrancing portrait, Freud captures an intensely private moment, and in doing so he succeeds in grasping the pure essence of humanity, a feat which lies at the core of his greater oeuvre – achieved through a meticulous observation of the most important people in his life. She appears vulnerable, in her recumbent pose she is exposed, naked, her gaze drifts away from the painter, head tilted to one side, eyes shut, dreaming. She does not confront the viewer, or the artist, rather we confront her in an intimate moment of privacy. She exudes the femininity and the natural serenity of an expectant mother; she is at once a modern ‘Madonna and Child’ and ‘Sleeping Venus’. In this painting Freud has echoed the great artists throughout art history, from Titian to Picasso, in interpreting these classical themes, and delivers a breath-taking image of beauty, desire, femininity, fertility and birth.
In Pregnant Girl, Freud achieves the intangible character that he first described in 1954: “The picture in order to move us must never merely remind us of life, but must acquire a life of its own, precisely in order to reflect life” (Lucian Freud quoted in: Exh. Cat., London, Tate Britain, Lucian Freud, 2002 p. 15). Pregnant Girl has been presented at every major point of Freud’s exhibition history, from his first major retrospective at the Hayward Gallery, London (1974), through one of the most important survey exhibitions, which travelled during 1987-88 between museums in Washington D.C., Paris, London and Berlin, to the more recent celebrations at Tate Britain (2003), the National Portrait Gallery (2012), and the Kunsthistoriches in Vienna (2013-14). As such we bear witness to one of the most important and well-regarded works not only in Freud’s oeuvre, but moreover within the entire representation of the nude in the Twentieth Century. Pregnant Girl is a masterwork that pushes the envelope of figurative painting and presents an entirely revolutionary, penetrating portrait of human psychology and conveys an emotion that speaks directly to the viewer.
Executed in 1960-61 Pregnant Girl extols a sublime display of Freud's painterly control: the facetted planes of colour shift through a tonal spectrum to lend form while a flurry of brushstrokes forge a physical topography that describes the body's shape and the pallor of delicate flesh. Indeed, as is perfectly characteristic of Freud's working practice of this time, the material of paint becomes inextricable from its subject, an equation reached only following a frustration with the method and technique of his earlier realist style of the 1950s. As Freud elucidates, it was his relationship with fellow painter Francis Bacon which helped prompt a new direction in style; “When people went on about my technique and how it related to the German old masters I have to say it was sickening. Especially when they went on about technique. I think that Francis’ way of painting freely helped me feel more daring” (Lucian Freud quoted in: ‘A Late-Night conversation with Lucian Freud’, Sebastian Smee, Freud at Work, London 2006, p. 18).
The paintings that Freud made in the early 1960s are unlike anything that he had previously done. Highly expressive, they represent a radical departure from his realist style. They have a startling new impetus, and an almost sculptural quality based on a more developed awareness of both volume and contrast. He exchanged his fine sable brushes for larger ones made of hogs' hair, and taught himself to work standing up: “It wasn’t that I was abandoning something dear to me,” he said, “more that I wanted to develop something unknown to me” (Lucian Freud quoted in: Robert Hughes, Lucian Freud, Paintings, London 1989, p. 18). As the handling of paint became looser and more dense, so each moment of contact with the canvas became more loaded and less governable. As broadcast in the present work this bolder, more visceral brushwork feels perfectly suited to Bernadine’s dark flowing locks of raven hair. In the paintings Freud embarked on in the 1960s, he looked to convey the landscape and structure of his sitters’ faces, endowing them with a strong physical presence and greater visual movement.
The change in method imbued Freud with a more ambitious approach to scale and composition, clearly evident in this painting, as Lawrence Gowing states: “The scale (in every sense) of the 1960s pictures represented an expansion of the physical meaning of paint that painting was in urgent, crying need of” (Lawrence Gowing, Lucian Freud, London 1982, p. 150). Freud’s portrayal of Bernadine is executed on a scale yet to be seen for a single-head portrait. The scale and composition of Pregnant Girl shaped much of Freud’s work over the next decade, evident in further masterpieces such as Red Haired Man on a Chair (1962-63), Man’s Head (Self Portrait I) (1963) in the Whitworth Gallery, Manchester and Reflection with Two Children (Self-Portrait) (1965) in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. Critics responded positively to the radical transition in Freud’s approach to painting. Robert Hughes acknowledged a greater agility and freedom of drawing, suggesting that these portraits owed something to Freud’s fascination with Frans Hals, an artist he had once described as fated always to look modern, to the point of coarseness.
Bernadine Coverley was only 16 when she met Freud, who himself was thirty-seven, in London’s Soho in 1959. In Pregnant Girl we see Freud paint his lover at an early stage in their relationship; reclining on the omnipresent green sofa in the long and narrow room in his studio in Delamere Terrace, West London. She was just 17 when she fell pregnant with their first child Bella. Freud and Coverley never lived together, nor did they marry, but they remained close throughout the years. Despite Coverley moving to Marrakech with her daughters Bella and Esther following the break-up of the relationship, Esther remembered that they remained on good terms, “Dad always spoke admiringly of her. And they’d often see each other at Bella’s [fashion] shows or my first nights when I was an actress. They were both interested in hearing about each other, and talked very little about the past and what their relationship was like. But that’s how they were” (Esther Freud quoted in: Geordie Grieg, Breakfast with Lucian, London 2013, p. 220). Although he was not altogether present in Bella and Esther’s early years, Freud was extremely close with his two daughters, painting both of them several times, including Baby on a Green Sofa (1961), a painting of Bella as a baby resting on the same green sofa on which her mother was portrayed. Freud’s portraiture is restricted solely to those closest to him and his everyday life in places he is familiar with. Indeed, he has said that “I work from people that interest me, and that I care about and think about, in rooms that I live and know” (Lucian Freud quoted in: John Russell, Lucian Freud, London 1974, p. 13). It is, however, the portraits of his family members which make up the most significant proportion of these works, and are arguably the most intimate and revealing. He consistently painted, drew, and etched his children and loved ones throughout his life, noting that “People are driven toward making works of art, not by familiarity with the process by which this is done, but by the necessity to communicate their feeling about the object of their choice with such intensity that the feelings become infectious” (Lucian Freud, ‘Some Thoughts on Painting’, Encounter, Vol. III, No. 1, p. 23). As a result Pregnant Girl reveals an extraordinary familial intimacy between lover, mother, and daughter.
In the dream-like state of his lover, Freud presents an alluring scene of serenity, calm, and desire. It was Picasso who once said “When a man watches a woman asleep, he tries to understand” and Freud’s relationship with the sitter is one that is at once professional, intimate, personal, and exploitative, examining and exploring her figure for the manifold aesthetic considerations of her naked torso while she sleeps (Pablo Picasso quoted in: John Richardson, A Life of Picasso, New York 1991, Vol. I, p. 317). There are arguably no images from the artist’s sixty-year career that are more gripping or evocative of the exactitude of mankind than his portraits of the single naked female figure. With extraordinary attention and great resolve, the present work navigates the slender contours of Bernadine Coverley's body through luxurious yet economical patterns of richly applied pigment that evoke the expressive potential of the human form. Commenting on Freud’s 1988 retrospective, the revered critic Robert Hughes exclaimed: “It is unlikely that any painter since Picasso has made his figuring of the naked human body such an intense and unsettling experience for the viewer as Lucian Freud. Certainly no realist artist, working within the boundaries of likeness (and one may note that ‘Naked Portrait’ is a recurrent phrase in Freud’s titles) has done so” (Robert Hughes, op. cit, p. 19).
Speaking about the incentives behind his nudes, Freud confessed: “All portraits are difficult for me. But a nude presents different challenges. When someone is naked, there is in effect nothing to be hidden. You are stripped of your costume, as it were. Not everyone wants to be that honest about themselves. That means I feel an obligation to be equally honest in how I represent their honesty. It’s a matter of responsibility. I’m not trying to be a philosopher. I’m more of a realist. I’m just trying to see and understand the people that make up my life” (Lucian Freud quoted in: Phoebe Hoban, Lucian Freud: Eyes Wide Open, Seattle 2014, p. 100).
Freud’s Pregnant Girl evades a sense of voyeurism, although the artist categorically insisted that his relationship with sitters was one of unique mutual intimacy rather than eroticism, even if many sitters were also his lovers: “No one is idealized in Freud’s world, and he seems to have been fearless in regard to the knotty politics of gender. He understood that he was a male painter with a male viewpoint, and it would simplify things to say that his female nudes follow the modernist tradition of the odalisque. Sometimes they do, but they also rephrase it in some complicated ways. If the male gaze is implicitly ‘sexual’, many of Freud’s nudes could be considered outlandish… Freud puts his nude subjects front and centre, and with an honesty that can be startling” (Michael Auping, ‘Freud From America’ in: Exh. Cat., London, National Portrait Gallery, (and travelling), Lucian Freud: Portraits, 2012, p. 51).
Pregnant Girl not only embodies Freud’s own desire to capture the quality of flesh in oil paint, but also exemplifies the artist’s contribution to the grand trajectory of depicting both the nude and the notion of fertility in Western tradition. In 1960 and 1961, the year that the present work was painted, Freud notably travelled to Holland and France to see paintings by the Old Masters who critically informed his attention to an intensification of reality and a forensic curiosity surrounding the landscape of the figure. Freud spent days with the Goyas at Castres, the Ingres’ at Montauban, and the Courbets at Montpellier. Categorically engrossed with art history, the influences that Freud drew from these antecedents are epitomised in the present work – a canvas that demonstrates the supreme capacity for paint to inhabit the subtle idiosyncrasies and variations of the human body. Reclining in a position that recalls a myriad of historical nudes, from Titian’s Venus Sleeping and Courbet’s Femme Nu Couchée to Picasso's Le Rêve, Freud’s Pregnant Girl undeniably paints contemporary life in the tradition of such master artists whose images probed the existential conditions of modernity. One may discern not only the influence of painters in her elegant and poised form but also in the pallid tone of her skin, the contours of which capture the reflections of light within the enclaves of her clavicles to create a chiaroscuro effect, reminiscent of the masterful marble renderings of Bernini or Canova.
Freud noted that his aim in painting was “to try and move the senses by giving an intensification of reality. Whether this can be achieved depends on how intensely the painter understands and feels for the person of his choice” (Lucian Freud, ‘Some Thoughts on Painting’, op. cit, p. 23). Throughout his renowned career Freud lived and practiced by this maxim, translating his physical circumstances, experiences, and relationships into compositions that communicate universal truths of human psychology and emotion. His corpus is replete with canvases that capture within their borders instances of intense intimacy and privacy; his work reads as a dedicated and minute study of personal human moments. There is no question that his most arresting and evocative images are born from his most intimate relationships, and Pregnant Girl is an exemplary example of this defining characteristic of Freud’s art.
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