Lucian Freud, Whose Portraits Set Auction Records, Dies at 88

Lucien Freud
British painter Lucien Freud, dies at 88. Photographer: Stephan Agostini/AFP/Getty Images

Lucian Freud, the British painter of regular people in all their fleshy glory who stayed loyal to portraiture and realism even when modern art veered toward the abstract, has died. He was 88.

Freud died July 20 at his home in London after a brief illness, said William Acquavella, owner of Acquavella Galleries in New York, which is Freud’s worldwide dealer. “He lived to paint and painted until the day he died, far removed from the noise of the art world,” Acquavella said yesterday in a statement.

A grandson of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud preferred to use friends and family members, including his mother, as subjects of his portraits, using thick gobs of paint to reveal the human body’s curves, folds and imperfections. (He preferred the term “naked” rather than “nude.”) His paintings were the product of profound observation of human beings and fastidious self-criticism, and he graduated to larger and larger canvases starting in the 1980s.

“I paint people not because of what they are like, not exactly in spite of what they are like, but how they happen to be,” he said.

Bloomberg News critic Jorg von Uthmann, in a review of a 2010 show at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, called Freud’s work “unashamedly traditional, stubbornly figurative and realistic to the point of being brutal.”

Queen’s Portrait

Born in Germany, Freud moved to the U.K. at 11 and later became a naturalized citizen. His longtime studio was at a home in the London neighborhood of Holland Park. In 2000 and 2001, Queen Elizabeth II sat for a portrait that provided fodder for Freud’s fans and critics alike. He painted model Kate Moss in 2002, while she was pregnant.

Freud generally needed as much as a year’s worth of regular sittings to complete a portrait.

In 2008, “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping,” his portrait of a 280-pound civil servant named Sue, sold for $33.6 million (20.6 million pounds) -- the highest price ever for a work by a living artist -- in an auction at Christie’s International in New York. The purchase, later reported to be by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, culminated a surge of interest in Freud’s work.

The 1998 sale in London of his “Naked Portrait with Reflection” for 2.8 million pounds ($4.6 million) set a record for the most expensive contemporary work sold in Europe. The portrait, from 1980, depicts a voluptuous woman reclining on a sofa in the nude. It was sold again in 2008, for 11.8 million pounds.

‘Woman Smiling’

Also in 1998, his “Large Interior W11,” which shows two of his children and three friends in a rundown London interior, sold for $5.8 million.

His work continued to draw high prices. In February 2010, at Sotheby’s in London, a 1978 Freud self-portrait showing him with a black eye after a fight with a London taxi driver sold for 2.8 million pounds. At a June 2011 auction at Christie’s in London, “Woman Smiling,” a 1958-1959 Freud portrait of his lover, Suzy Boyt, sold for 4.7 million pounds.

Though he lived simply, his artwork made him a wealthy man, and he had a well-known taste for gambling. The Times of London, on its 2011 list of the U.K.’s richest, estimated Freud’s net worth to be 125 million pounds.

The art critic Robert Hughes, writing in Time magazine in 1993, called Freud “the best realist painter alive.”

Ahead of Nazis

“Most of the major stylistic events in art since 1900, starting with late Cezanne and going on through cubism to abstraction in its various forms, have had no apparent impact on Freud’s painting,” Hughes wrote. “He is a rebuke to superficial notions of determinism.”

Lucian Michael Freud was born on Dec. 8, 1922, in Berlin, the second of three sons in a Jewish family. His mother, Lucie, and his father, Ernst -- an architect who was the second son of Sigmund Freud -- moved the family to London in 1933 as Nazism was on the rise in Germany.

The first word he uttered, in his mother’s recollection, was “alleine” -- or “alone, leave me alone.” Solitude would be the condition he enjoyed most.

His rocky path through British schools included time at Bryanston, where he made a sandstone carving of a three-legged horse. That won him a spot at London’s Central School of Arts and Crafts.

Literary Friends

After serving as a seaman in the British Navy in the North Atlantic in 1941, at the start of World War II, he concentrated on his art. His first solo exhibition, in 1944, included “The Painter’s Room,” one of his more famous works.

During those years, Freud mixed with the poets Stephen Spender and W.H. Auden, George Orwell, and the critic and editor Cyril Connolly. In the late 1940s, he met Francis Bacon, who would remain a close friend until the 1970s. Freud featured in many Bacon paintings, and Bacon in some, though fewer, of Freud’s.

Among his many relationships with women, two led to marriage, and then divorce. In 1948, he married Kitty Garman, daughter of the sculptor Jacob Epstein, and they had two daughters. In 1953, he married Lady Caroline Blackwood. He had multiple children from later relationships, including novelists Esther Freud, Susie Boyt and Rose Boyt, and fashion designer Bella Freud.

Other of his progeny dealt with being called the “Forgotten Freuds,” the Daily Telegraph reported in a 2011 profile of Lucy Freud, one of his four children with the artist Katherine McAdam.

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