Here, Alexi gazes intently and slightly upwards, directly into the eyes of her observer. For the last fifty-seven years of his life Freud painted standing up as this allowed him to move more freely, coming closer to his subjects to scrutinise them. This required a great amount of vitality on his part in order to endure his self-imposed, extremely demanding working schedule of seven days a week. A small break for lunch would separate a morning and afternoon session of painting that would often turn into a late night. Models, too, were required to sit for hours holding the same pose. During these sessions, however, Freud would do his best to make his sitters feel at ease - keeping them comfortable was crucial in order for them to reveal themselves as they truly were. Freud was then able to observe them, analyse and pick on the slightest change in their expression and explore the slight changes in their pose.
The extent of the intimacy between Freud and his models is visible in the almost tactile quality of his paintings. The artist’s charisma made him magnetic to women and men alike, and enabled him to forge relationships that gave him further insight into his sitters’ character. This was the case with Alexi Williams-Wynn - fifty years younger than the painter, the model was a sculpture student at the Royal Academy when she met Freud. Their encounter was an accidental one; one night Williams-Wynn was almost ran over by a speeding car in the streets of London. Having recognised one of the passengers as Freud, she wrote him a letter and was surprised to receive an invitation to tea in response. The painter asked the young student to start sitting for him immediately, and it was not long before they became lovers. The affair did not last long, but besides the present work, exceptional paintings such as The Painter Surprised by a Naked Admirer or Naked Portrait, both from 2004-5, were created.
In Portrait of a Girl (Alexi), however, Freud focuses his attention on the centre of the canvas, working almost exclusively on the face and the delicate tonal variations of Alexi’s skin, which stand out against the unworked, white background. The painter first sketched the outline of his model’s head and upper torso. Having relied on drawing as the starting point for his paintings earlier on in his career, Freud abandoned it for over forty years only to return to it in the early 1980s, when he felt that he could paint freely without it dominating his style. Colour was then applied onto the canvas, slowly bringing flesh into existence. In the present work, pigment has been layered with a sure hand, and form has been built up though swabs of colour that acquire sensual qualities. When looking closely into the picture, one discovers a remarkably varied and intricate palette. The artist used different tonalities of green and purple - perhaps unexpected in the depiction of skin - to suggest a particular shade, a shadow, or the smallest flaw in his subject’s flesh. The model’s face seems to emerge from the canvas, looking unabashedly in front of her, a slowly emerging smile on her lips. One can feel a certain tension created through this expression, as there may well have been between the lovers in the studio over the many hours of sittings. A true master of paint and its technique, Freud achieved in Portrait of a Girl (Alexi) his aim to “make paint work as flesh”, bringing the canvas to life in a remarkable display of painterly dexterity.
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