- Lucian Freud
- Seated Figure
- oil on canvas
- Executed in 1980-81.
Sale: Sotheby's, London, Post War and Contemporary, 30 June 1988, Lot 646
Sale: Sotheby's, London, Post War and Contemporary, 5 April, 1990, Lot 659
Acquired directly from the above
Seated Figure is an extraordinary example of Lucian Freud's commitment to capturing both the physical and psychological character of his sitters within the fabric of his canvas. Freud has been heralded as "the great amplifier of twentieth-century figurative art" (Sebastian Smee, Lucian Freud 1996-2005, London 2005, p.5), and the present work exemplifies the artist's characteristic ability to infuse the traditional depiction of the female nude with dynamic originality and an authenticity freed from sentimental illusion. While the artist is known for his insatiable interest in the naked form, Seated Figure seems to match the weight of the flesh with an acute understanding of the personal and impenetrable sphere of the individual, creating a tender articulation of the unspoken understanding, collaboration, and intimacy between the artist and the sitter.
The 1980s marked a time of urgency in Freud's artistic career as he strove to capture the plasticity of the human form in his work. Frank Auerbach, fellow artist and close friend to Freud, attests to the primacy of Freud's subject over a fixed stylistic technique, stating "Freud has no safety net of manner. Whenever his way of working threatens to become a style, he puts it aside like a blunted pencil and finds a procedure more suited to his needs." (Frank Auerbach cited in: William Feaver, Lucian Freud, London 2002, p. 51) Nevertheless, the heightened virtuosity in his brushwork during this important period as he moulded the topography of his figures in paint does create a definable reality. In Seated Figure, Freud packs the entire canvas with an unparalleled vitality, creating an image of emotional force made manifest through the paint itself. The sitter is rendered through painstaking observation and deliberate action; Freud employing an incredible economy of means in his application of paint that denies any self-indulgent gestural marks that could distract the eye from the carnality of the sitter. Through the combination of Cremnitz white, an inordinately heavy pigment, and the dry hog hair brushes that the artist uses to apply the paint to the canvas, Freud slowly builds up the surface of the painting, leaving the traces of the brushstrokes visible so that they become integral parts of the work. The trace of the brush is clearly detected on the sitter's chest, her collar bones and breasts subtly modelled in light and shadow through the delicate and continuous variation of and interplay between half-toned colours. Supporting each other, the brushstrokes and the colour create a responsive and living volume upon the canvas that is entirely recognizable. With the lines of the brush solidified on the granulated surface, the artist masterfully draws the eye of the viewer down the S-shaped curve of the seated model, reaching a palpability of flesh on her exposed thigh. Counteracting the verticality of the composition, the thigh forces the viewer's gaze from one side of the canvas to another, acting as a point of proximity and inclusion while also a barrier and line of exclusion. Pivoting for a moment at her knee, the artist's hand is readily sensed as he pulls the paint down the bottom half of her leg, heeding gravity's call. The model's foot, the closest part of her body to the artist as he painted her, is handled with incredible painterly dexterity, a concert of pinks, creams and browns that dissolve into one another, mirroring the colour of life; an animation of the individual's existence. "I want paint to work as flesh, I know my idea of portraiture came from dissatisfaction with portraits that resemble people. I would wish my portraits to be of the people, not like them. Not having the look of the sitter, being them. As far as I am concerned the paint is the person. I want it to work for me as flesh does." (The artist cited in: Lawrence Gowning, Lucian Freud, London 1982, pp. 190-191)
Freud produces comparatively few paintings per year, each of which demonstrates his dogged commitment to the painted form and dedication to visual authenticity. As all of his paintings require innumerable sittings throughout the weeks, months and years that bring them to completion, Freud has focused most of his career on painting only those who are close to him in an effort to maintain a relationship of personal intimacy between the sitter and the artist that can be truthfully relayed to the viewer. In a statement published in Encounter to coincide with his selection for the XXVII Venice Biennale (1954) Freud explained: "My object in painting pictures is 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 or object of his choice." (Lucian Freud, 'Some Thoughts on Painting', Encounter, July 1954).
Freud himself calls his nudes "naked portraits" ("The Painter in his Studio", The Economist, 23 September 2010) exemplifying the importance he attaches to the individuality of those he paints. In a further insistence of authenticity, the artist never dictates the pose, instead allowing the sitter to assume whichever position puts them most at ease. In this manner, his work is very much a collaborative endeavour, and the final result a mutual achievement. The present work bares the mark of an intimacy between the sitter and the artist; however this obvious closeness resists sentimentality by offsetting any tenderness with a sober objectivity that clinically analyses the sitter and her setting with an equality of gaze and concentration. The detail with which Freud captures not only the sitter but also the familiar forms of his worn sofa against which his model leans exemplifies the intensity of the artists gaze. Seeing everything at close range, the artist constantly addresses the contrasts and interaction between the inanimate object and the density of life exuding from the sitter; the fraying furniture scrutinised both for its own individual worth as well as to animate the presence of the subject. As described by one of his sitters, the background is so integral to his painting that he objects to the term altogether, instead conceiving his works as an integration of the sitter and the studio. So important is one to the other that the artist insists on the model's presence even if he is only working on a corner of the painting in which nothing appears.
Since the Renaissance, the female nude has been a central pillar on which western artistic tradition has stood. Although a profound admiration for the female form has been celebrated throughout the centuries, the genre does not inherently deal with individuality and variety. Instead, the tradition has focused on the idealization of the naked body, transmitted through a roster of rules and standards that commit the artist to a role of control over the passive female object. This convention often imbues the nude with an elementary notion of sexual desire and voyeurism that can be traced from the Renaissance and was kept alive in the work of the masters of the modern tradition in paintings such as Velazquez' Rokeby Venus (1648-51), and Delacroix's Female Nude Reclining on a Divan (1823-26). In 1863, Edouard Manet painted his famous Olympia, a work that was assailed for its shamelessly confrontational protagonist. The painting was seen as a challenge to the prevailing idealizations of the female form through its destabilization of the direction and the power of the male gaze. However, Olympia's stare still implicates a vast narrative, so much so that without it, the work would lose its meaning and underlying reason. Freud, however, approaches the nude with a startling originality and objective realism akin to none; an approach that attests to his understanding of the primacy of the subject over the fantasy of the artist and the viewer. "The painter's obsession with his subject is all that he needs to drive him to work. 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 these feelings become infectious. Yet the painter needs to put himself at a certain emotional distance from the subject in order to allow it to speak. He may smother it if he lets his passion for it overwhelm him while he is in the act of painting." (Lucian Freud, 'Some Thoughts on Painting', Op Cit). By disallowing the projection of a narrative onto his sitters Freud advances the genre of the nude, bestowing upon those he paints an unadulterated autonomy of being.
Freud injects his subject with a certain particularity while also allowing the viewer a broader sense of the individual that goes far beyond a two dimensional representation. His work strives to move beyond representation and to communicate a deeper truth about the sitter and their relationship with the artist, both within and without the walls of his studio. His paintings become a conversation that mark the time and intensity of their creation, simultaneously capturing the essence of being while at the same time reminding us of the fundamental mystery of our fellow human beings.