An important portrait by Lucian Freud, appearing at auction for the first time, has fetched £22,464,300 in London. Portrait on a White Cover, which led the Contemporary Art Evening Auction, was painted in 2002-03 and is one of the last reclining nudes created by Freud before his death in 2011.
Alongside the self-portrait, the reclining nude was the defining motif of Freud’s career. Across sixty years of painting, innumerable mutations of painterly style, and a multitude of sitters, he returned to this challenging subject time and again. Portrait on a White Cover — one of the last reclining nudes that Freud completed — sits at the pinnacle of this endeavour.
"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…” — Lucian Freud, Lucian Freud: Eyes Wide Open, Seattle 2014.
Freud was 80 years old when he commenced Portrait on a White Cover, and he had already achieved almost all that one could as an artist. In the 2000s alone, Freud was the subject of exhibitions at the Tate, the Venice Biennale, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. His group of sitters and subjects was similarly illustrious, and included Queen Elizabeth II, who he painted between 2000 and 2001.
Portrait on a White Cover depicts Sophie Lawrence, who worked for Tate publishing and was spotted by Freud whilst preparing for his Tate retrospective in 2002. This is her only known portrait and there is little written about her in the literature surrounding the artist’s work.
Freud’s deference to the Old Masters was stronger than ever by the time he painted Portrait on a White Cover. It was displayed at the Wallace Collection in 2004 because Freud wanted to see how his own nudes stood up to such classical examples as Titian’s Perseus and Andromeda. As such, it is no surprise that the influence of the artist’s most loved Old Masters on this painting is overt. Direct comparisons can be made with the creamy flesh of Ingres’ Grande Odalisque; Bernini’s Rape of Propserpina, and Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus.
Alex Branczik, Head of Contemporary Art for Sotheby’s Europe, said: “By the turn of the millennium, Freud was widely acknowledged to be Britain’s greatest living painter. However, even in the face of such plaudits, he refused to succumb to a late style, to allow his works to soften or loosen. The present work is testament to this refusal. Across fifty years of painting the reclining nude, Freud was leading up to this point.”
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