Painted between 1967 and 1968, Head of E.O.W. is a striking and intimate portrait of Auerbach's first great muse. E.O.W., or (E)Stella West. She was Auerbach's lover and favourite model for the most crucial, formative years of his early career, the subject of his great breakthrough painting E.O.W. Nude of 1954, and it was the tension of that relationship that gave him the inspiration to try to convey the intensity of the emotions sparked by his sittings that brought about his signature style. 'I had nothing to lose,' he said. 'She had extreme courage, health and no sense of self-preservation' (Auerbach, quoted in R. Hughes, Frank Auerbach, London, 1990, p. 90).
The gem-like scale of Head of E.O.W. belies the amount of paint on the canvas: this accumulation of oils is immensely thick, the paint having been dragged and layered and built up over a huge amount of time. The clear brushstrokes that are discernable in the thick and redolent surface mark a transition in Auerbach's work, a move towards the use of actual strokes in his work. Earlier images of E.O.W. often shared a similar viewpoint and composition, but the paint tended not to reveal the sweeping gestures that are apparent in the intensely coloured surface of Head of E.O.W. Here, the swirls of paint reveal an interest in the brushstroke that would reach its apogee in the classic images that have become the artist's hallmark.
On a personal level, Head of E.O.W. shows a woman still literally 'of substance' within the artist's work. In a short time, her presence in Auerbach's paintings would become increasingly ambiguous, a process that arguably sees its beginning in this dazzling little field of yellow. Here, though, there is a strong continuity both in texture and in composition with the groundbreaking paintings that Auerbach had created with Stella as his model almost two decades earlier. This appears to form part of a nostalgic glance backwards, the artist not only experiencing the presence of the sitter before him, but recalling her presence in other paintings too.