Formally trained as a draftsman prior to becoming a painter, Freud never lost sight of the importance of drawing, and his drawings underlie and inform his paintings whilst also existing as their own discrete body of work. By the late 1980s when Balthus sat for Freud, Freud had mastered his unique approach to capturing human form and in the present portrait Freud endows each charcoal line with astonishing immediacy and intimacy. In addition to his renewed fascination with drawing during the 1980s, Freud also explored etching extensively during the early part of the decade, and the influence of this comes through in the present work through Freud’s use of repeated hatch marks to contour Balthus’s face and imply three-dimensionality.
Portraiture is fundamental to Freud’s oeuvre as a means for exploring both the external contours of the human form as well as the internal corridors of the sitter’s psyche. Over the course of his career Freud painted and drew numerous other artists who influenced him both personally and professionally, including Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach, and the present portrait of Balthus. A well-known painter of the previous generation and a mentor to Freud during the younger artist['s early career, Balthus was recognized in his own artistic practice for his precise handling of paint and for his portraits, which possess an enigmatic, almost troubling quality characteristic of ‘Magic Realism’. Freud’s early drawings of the 1940s, clearly influenced by Balthus, have a similarly introspective dreamlike fascination. Freud drew Portrait of Balthus in August of 1989, only a few months after one of his most valuable drawings Portrait of Francis Bacon of 1952 was tragically stolen while on exhibition at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin. The theft devastated Freud, and that the present work was drawn only three months later testifies to the personal significance of Portrait of Balthus to Freud and to its art historical import. Further contributing to the emotional and historical significance of the present work, Balthus’s biographer Nicholas Fox Weber stated that Freud’s drawing is one of two portraits for which Balthus ever sat, the other done by his mother, Bernadine. Portrait of Balthus is both an homage to the older artist as well as a masterful celebration of Freud’s own artistic achievements.
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