Dublin, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Lucian Freud, June - September 2007, p. 161, illustrated in colour
The Hague, Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, Lucian Freud, February - June 2008, n.p., illustrated
Bruce Bernard and David Dawson, Eds., Freud at Work, London 2006, n.p., illustrated in colour (in progress in the artist's studio)
David Dawson, A Painter’s Progress: A Portrait of Lucian Freud, London 2014, pp. 72-73, illustrated in colour (in progress in the artist's studio)
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. She is tangential to the legend of Freud in the 2000s, which was played out as much in the British tabloid press as in his biographies. However, her slight remove from the oft-told narrative of the artist’s later years allows for a more unencumbered reading of this painting. That Lawrence was not one of the artists lovers, children, or celebrity friends means that in viewing this work, we are afforded no prejudice or bias, and in its appreciation we are better reminded of one this artist’s greatest contributions to the genre of portraiture. As critic and author Sebastian Smee has written: “Freud’s portraits are not revelatory or didactic; they do not aim to convey a specific trait or to reveal the perceived core of any given character: “Freud’s portraits do not presume to know their subjects definitively… Instead, they do something far more subversive and, in the end, moving. Even as he scrutinizes his models with the utmost intensity, Freud powerfully registers their unknowability. In doing so, he grants them a depth of human freedom; this in turn provokes an impulse in the viewer to accord them a genuine, a believable reality” (Sebastian Smee, Lucian Freud, London 2005, p. 7). Works such as Portrait on a White Cover are not the product of an artist-god – an all-powerful creator concerned with the production of isolated concetti where each detail is contrived. His works are not shrouded in metaphor or allegory; they are unabashed and unembarrassed. They exist solely as the result of his life-long endeavour: the observation of a subject from life under close scrutiny and extreme concentration: “I paint people not because of what they are like, not exactly in spite of what they are, but how they happen to be” (Ibid.)
Alongside the self-portrait, the reclining nude was the defining leitmotif of Freud’s career. Across sixty years of painting, innumerable mutations of painterly style, and a multitude of sitters, he returned to this subject time and again. It was, in many ways, the greatest challenge of his career; a problem to which he never found a solution: “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).
The present work sits at the pinnacle of this endeavour. It is one of the last reclining nudes that Freud completed, and appears as the zenith of his engagement with the trope. An examination of his experiments up to this point demonstrates the breadth of his achievements in the genre. In 1951, Freud created Girl with a White Dog, now in the collection of the Tate. Depicting his first wife Kitty Garman, this painting exemplifies his early style through its stolid atmosphere, delicate texture, exact delineation, and overwhelming mood of tension. Its aqueous colour and precise verisimilitude seem so far from the warm brushwork of Portrait on a White Cover. Ten years later, following a pair of failed marriages and a drastic change in style, Freud produced Pregnant Girl – a portrait of his expectant lover Bernardine Coverley. The brushwork is sharper – almost brusque – but the finished result is infinitely more tender, as if each broad stroke was a caress. The portraits of Jacquetta Eliot from the early 1970s are different again; raw in their sexuality, characterised by an elevated viewpoint and a focus on the breasts and genitalia. With legs splayed and hanging off a foreshortened bedframe, Naked Portrait (1973) is an exemplar of this series, also owned by the Tate, and particularly relevant to the present work in pose. Of the 1980s, Sophie de Stempel was Freud’s most oft-relied sitter; she was part of a generation of younger artists including Cerith Wyn Evans who came into Freud’s life and breathed new force into his work. Her portrait Lying by the Rags (1988-9), in the Astrup Fearnley Museum in Oslo, is a striking painting obviously relevant to the present work in the treatment of swathes of expressive drapery and the tactile juxtaposition of fabric and flesh. It was Wyn Evans who introduced Freud to Leigh Bowery and in turn to Sue Tilley, the monumental sitters who took control of his oeuvre in the early 1990s. Freud’s portrait of Tilley Benefit’s Supervisor Resting feels like the elastic limit of his oeuvre – at once extraordinary, corpulent, and decadent. It is almost baroque – an essay on flesh in extremis. Thus, across fifty years of painting the reclining nude, Freud was leading up to this point.
By the turn of the millennium, Freud’s deference to the Old Master’s was stronger than ever. Constable had always been important to him, but in 2002 – the year he started the present work – his obsession grew so strong that he was asked to curate an exhibition dedicated to the artist at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. As previously mentioned, Portrait on a White Cover was displayed at the Wallace Collection in 2004 in a special, almost impromptu exhibition, organised in part because Freud wanted to see how his own nudes stood up to such classical examples as Titian’s Perseus and Andromeda (1556). As such, it is no surprise that the influence of the artist’s most loved Old Masters upon the present work is overt. Ingres is always relevant to Freud. When asked who he admired most in the pantheon of art history in 2004, only a year after this work was completed, he said: “Ingres as much as anyone” (Lucian Freud cited in: Geordie Greig, Breakfast with Lucian, London 2013, p. 131). Portrait on a White Cover invite a direct comparison to Ingres’ Grande Odalisque, featuring the same sumptuous depiction of creamy flesh, the same coy modesty, and the same painterly device of juxtaposing supple flesh with crinkled folding fabric. Freud’s titles were never accidental and like Ingres, he has put as much painterly emphasis on the drapery and cloth in the present work as upon the figure herself.
Portrait on a White Cover has a sculptural quality – an Italianate mood driven by Freud’s extraordinary rendering of his sitter’s legs. Delicately folded, they seem to extend out towards the viewer and hover in space, almost puncturing the picture plane. In formal terms, the exactness of this foreshortening is immediately redolent of the great masters of Renaissance disegno: we think of Andrea Mantegna’s Lamentation of Christ (c. 1480) in the Pinoteca di Brera and of Antonio da Corregio’s Assumption of the Virgin (1522-30) in Parma Cathedral, which is focussed on a similar pair of legs, shrinking away from us in celestial light. However, the suppleness of Freud’s flesh is more redolent of sculpture itself, particularly the work of Gianlorenzo Bernini. Like Bernini, Freud was a true master at endowing mute material with the softness and warmth of human flesh; and like Freud, in portraiture Bernini was focussed not on idealism or metaphor, but on truth; upon an absolute likeness achieved through close scrutiny from life. The present work recalls Bernini’s Rape of Propserpina in the Galleria Borghese, a dramatic sculpture that – although in marble and not in oils – features a directly comparable pair of legs. In Bernini as in Freud, the subjects limbs are treated with sumptuous delicacy; each pair exude a tactility that makes the viewer believe they could reach out and feel the warmth of human flesh, rather than the slick of oleaginous paint, or the cold chill of stone.
Neil MacGregor, director of the National Gallery between 1987 and 2002, had given Freud and Auerbach all-hours access to the nation’s most important pictures. They would visit Trafalgar Square regularly to sketch, study, and enjoy the masterpieces. As such, it is no surprise that artists who are well represented in the National Gallery should have particular influence on the present work. We think of Velazquez whose Rokeby Venus occupies a position of paramount importance within the history of the reclining nude. However, it is perhaps Velazquez’s portraiture that proved more relevant to Freud. Freud’s portraits share the magic of Velazquez. Just as the Spanish master painted kings whose regal garbs devolved into individual abstract marks under close inspection, only to reconfigure as a unified whole when regarded from a distance, so too Freud’s sitter in the present work is delineated by moments of paintwork that seem extraordinarily inventive: for example the left big toe, hatched with parallel vertical lines of individual blockish brushstrokes, or the arabesque vein that runs down the outer thigh, marked with venous blue. Sebastian Smee might have described either of the painters when he said: “He can pack more energy and specifically anchored imagination into a few square inches of brushwork than anyone alive… somehow it all coheres to produce an intensified reality” (Sebastian Smee, op. cit., p. 10).
Jean-Siméon Chardin was one of Freud’s greatest painting heroes and he produced a handful of paintings drawn directly from the work of his French antecedent. They are not formally relevant to the present work but his motivation for starting them illuminates everything about why he chose to paint in such deference to the examples of the Old Masters: “I don’t want to copy the Chardin… I simply want to get as near to it as I can. It’s a labour of love” (Lucian Freud quoted in John Richardson, ‘Shock of the Nude’, Vanity Fair, May 2000, online). This artist’s references to art historical precedents were not hackneyed attempts to situate himself at the forefront of a fleeting avant-garde, nor self-aggrandizing moves to champion his own work within the discourse. He was, at the end of his life as at the beginning, entirely and totally devoted to the same goals that he set out in 1954; “to try and move the senses by giving an intensification of reality” (Lucian Freud, ‘Some Thoughts on Painting’, Encounter, July 1954, no. 1, p. 23). Portrait on a White Cover should be regarded an overwhelming success in this regard; a moving, tender, and beautiful elucidation of the eminent Lucian Freud’s overriding artistic concept.
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