It was sad to hear of the death of the figurative painter Lucien Freud last week. The pre-eminent and often controversial artist was best known for his work as a portrait artist. Whilst many of his subjects may have been well-known, he could never have been described as your common or garden society portraiture artist like Sargent or Boldini. On the contrary, his purpose was not to flatter: the stark and uncompromising images, predominantly of highly-detailed nudes reclining against plain white sheets, an iron bedstead or on an old traditional Chesterfield sofa, have few precedents in the art of the human form.

lucien freud

Lucian Freud, Bella and Esther, 1988, oil on canvas, 73.7 x 88.9 cm, Private Collection, © the Artist.

So, why did he choose to pose his subjects against such austere and unforgiving backdrops? Only Freud could answer that question honestly. Unfortunately he was not one for giving interviews, so the best the critics can do is guess. Mind you, there was certainly a precedent for using an old leather Chesterfield sofa. His grandfather, Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, was the proud owner of probably the most famous Chesterfield settee in history. It difficult to even begin to estimate just how many famous and not-so-famous people draped themselves across that particular Chesterfield sofa whilst pouring out their troubles and worries.
So why did he choose to use a traditional Chesterfield sofa? Well, it’s believed that Freud preferred to use such stark backdrops because they acted as a foil to his subjects and didn’t distract the attention of the viewer. The contrast between the plain white sheet or Chesterfield sofa, and Freud’s almost sculptural fascination with flesh and its human contours, conveyed using a limited palette of greasy whites and meaty reds, helped to give the portrait grounding and focus all of the attention on the sitter. Freud painted standing up with the pitiless eye of an interrogator whilst his vulnerable subjects sat or reclined.
His paintings have sold for millions and that price will only increase now he’s no longer with us. You have to seriously wonder what sort of price the Chesterfield sofa would fetch if it were ever to end up at auction. One thing’s for sure, it’s probably out of our price range. You’d be better of buying a new one: it’ll certainly be cheaper and definitely won’t have paint stains.
Picture credit –

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