Lucian Freud: Master Portrayer Of The Human Form

A look into the life of Lucian Freud, the prolific nude portrait artist and grandson of psychoanalysis founder Sigmund Freud.

Apr 14, 2020By Charlotte Davis, BA Art History
2 self portraits of the artist
Reflection (Self-Portrait) by Lucian Freud, 1985 & 2002

Lucian Freud is known today as one of the most successful portrait artists of the 20th century. His canvases are renowned for their depth of color, honesty and success in displaying the subtleties of the human form. He has also been celebrated for his self-portraits, which provide a comprehensive timeline of his career and an unapologetic insight into the aging of the human body. Below are 12 facts covering highlights of his life and career, and a look into how his work evolved over time. 


Lucian Freud Was The Grandson Of Sigmund Freud

photograph of lucian and sigmund freud
Sigmund and Lucian Freud in London, 1938

Lucian Freud was born to Lucie and Ernst L. Freud, the son of famed Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. His mother studied art history and his father was an architect. Although Freud claims to have had a good relationship with his grandfather, he denied that psychoanalysis had any bearing on his artwork. However, some critics have speculated that the influence of Surrealism and the intimate and analytical nature of Freud’s later portraits lend a hand to psychoanalysis. 


Seeking Refuge in London

Freud was born in Berlin in 1922 into a Jewish family. However, in 1933, when Freud was 11, the family moved to St. Johns Wood in London. That same year, Adolf Hitler had become the Chancellor of Germany, leading to the arrest of Nazi political opponents, opening of the concentration camp Dachau and the legalization of eugenic sterilization. The family thus fled to the UK to escape the subsequent Nazi persecution of the Jewish people. Six years after their relocation in 1939, Freud became a naturalized citizen.


Early Artistic Talent

childrens drawing of a landscape with house
Childhood landscape sketch with figures by Lucian Freud, 1930s


Freud began creating art and displaying his talent during his childhood. His drawings from this time, collected and saved by his mother, are rendered in vivid colors and show his love for outdoor scenery, birds and nature. Later on, his pieces reflect the Freud family’s emigration from Germany and adjustment to their new life in the UK. In 1938, at the age of sixteen, one of his drawings was chosen for a children’s art show at Peggy Guggenheim’s Gallery in London. The drawing itself had been done when Freud was only eight. 


A Young Surrealist and Cubist

painting of an animal entering a window
The Painter’s Room by Lucian Freud, 1944

Freud’s artistic education began after a series of school expulsions because of his volatile behavior. He attended the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing in Essex from 1939 until 1941, then Goldsmiths’ College in London. During this time, Freud’s realist drawing style featured Surrealism and Cubism elements, and his works were fraught with underlying anxieties and alienations. The spatial distortions in his early portraits also recalled early cubism, and his later works reflected his introduction to Pablo Picasso, even though Freud disliked Picasso’s work. 

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Close Friendship and Rivalry with Francis Bacon

drawing of francis bacon
Francis Bacon by Lucian Freud, 1952

Freud met Francis Bacon in the 1940s. Despite the fact that Bacon was 13 years older than Freud, the two immediately became friends, and their close relationship continued for the next 25 years. The two spent much of their time together painting, constantly critiquing each other’s work and forming an infamous rivalry that would last their entire friendship. Freud greatly admired Bacon and took significant inspiration from his work, but the two artists’ styles were notably different. Freud painted a portrait of Bacon which was stolen in Berlin in 1988.


When the two were not painting, they spent time together in bars in Soho drinking, arguing and gambling with other artistic aristocrats and bohemians including Stephen Spender, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. Despite being inseparable, the competitive nature of their relationship caused a fallout in the 1980s that ended their friendship.


A 20th-Century Expressionists

painting of a woman in bed
Hotel Bedroom by Lucian Freud, 1954

Freud’s early works are generally linked with the German Expressionist and Surrealist movements, as they portrayed people in abnormal positions or with enhanced juxtaposition. His work continued to mature during his friendship with Bacon, and the two were a part of a group of artists labelled as “The School of London” by fellow painter and printmaker Ronald Kitaj. These avant-garde artists all worked in the abstract figurative style, and their art is broadly classed as expressionism. Other members of the group included Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, Michael Andrews, David Hockney, Reginald Grey and Kitaj.


A Grueling Artistic Process

painting of a girl with a dog
Girl with a White Dog by Lucian Freud, 1950-51

Freud was first and foremost a portrait artist, and he continued to explore the human form throughout his career. He was known for being extremely obsessive about his painting, working painstakingly to capture every flaw and detail of his artistic subjects. His paintings required a seven-day workweek, during which Freud stood for its entirety because sitting ‘agitated’ him. Fellow artist David Hockney recalls sitting for a portrait by Freud for many months, culminating in hundreds of hours, whereas Freud sat for him only for several afternoons. Bacon was also shocked by the length of time Freud took to complete his portrait and his meticulous working style. 


A Collection of Autobiographical Work

painting of a nude painter, working
Painter Working, Reflection by Lucian Freud, 1993

Most of Freud’s works are either of himself or his friends, family, or lovers. He completed his first self-portrait in 1939 at the age of 17 and continued to depict himself for nearly 70 years after. The portraits illustrate Freud’s changing style and age through time, giving viewers a unique look at his metamorphosis throughout his career.

The portraits of others were almost always nudes, enhancing the intimacy of their relationship to the artist. Freud said of his choice to paint those close to him, “the subject matter is autobiographical, it’s all to do with the hope and memory and sensuality and involvement, really.” It is said that Freud only once painted someone he didn’t like, a book dealer named Bernard Breslauer. He portrayed him as far more grotesque than he was, and Breslauer subsequently had the painting destroyed.

His portraits also changed significantly throughout his career. His earlier works are characterized by muted, cool flesh tones and small brush strokes, whereas his mature work features more varied flesh tones with larger brush strokes and a more gestural, abstract style. This transition was in part because Freud had switched to longer brushes with stiffer hair in an attempt to shorten his assiduous painting process, as the brushes he has previously used yielded smaller strokes.


Painting Celebrity Portraits

painting of queen elizabeth 2 and david hockney
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and David Hockney by Lucian Freud, 2001 & 2002

As Lucien Freud became more famous, he was commissioned to paint people other than within his circle. He began to paint celebrities and people in power, most notable among these being Queen Elizabeth II and supermodel Kate Moss. These portraits were remarkably unattractive, showing Freud’s ability to depict almost anyone in an unflattering light. 


A Complex Family Dynamic

self portrait of the artist with two children
Reflection with two children (Self-Portrait) by Lucian Freud, 1965


Freud was married twice; once to Kitty (Katherine) Epstein, daughter of sculptor Jacob Epstein, and then to Guinness heiress Lady Caroline Blackwood. However, he also held countless mistresses and has fourteen confirmed children by twelve of these mistresses. Freud admits to having been an absentee father to most of these children, as art was always in his forefront and family on the periphery. However, some of his children began to spend more time with him in their adult lives. Some even posed nude for portraits by him, which yielded significant controversy.


He Was A Gambler

painting of a woman on a couch
Benefits Supervisor Sleeping by Lucian Freud, 1995

Freud displayed a plethora of debaucherous behaviors somewhat typical of antisocial artists during the time; he had a violent temper, committed numerous acts of adultery and drank voraciously. However, perhaps his most destructive vice was gambling. He accrued a significant amount of debt, some of which he paid off with art. Most famously, Freud was known for paying off his bookie and one of his biggest collectors, Alfie McLean, with his pieces. At the time of his death, McLean had a collection of 23 pieces with a total value estimated at around £100 million.

He Hated Renaissance Art

Freud was notoriously disdainful of Renaissance art, as the ideology of the period was the antithesis of his own. The Renaissance celebrated man as the apex of God’s creations with the ability to express divine beauty. Freud, on the other hand, believed that humanity should never forget its place in the universe and its state of constant deterioration. He depicted such themes in his art with the rendering of human flesh in near grotesque detail.

Lucian Freud Artworks at Auction

photograph of a painting of a nude woman on a bed

Portrait on a White Cover by Lucian Freud, 2002-03

Auction House: Sotheby’s (2018)

Price Realized: 22,464,300 GBP


photograph of a nude woman

Pregnant Girl by Lucian Freud, 1960-61

Auction House: Sotheby’s (2016)

Price Realized: 16,053,000 GBP


painting of a head of a boy

Head of a Boy by Lucian Freud, 1956

Auction House: Sotheby’s (2019)

Price Realized: 5,779,100 GBP


Author Image

By Charlotte DavisBA Art HistoryCharlotte is a contributing writer from Portland, Oregon now based in London, England. I’m an art historian with extensive knowledge in art history, classics, ancient art and archaeology.