Almost filling the canvas, Lucian Freud's Head of a Woman, painted in 1990-91, has a bracing immediacy. The subject's features dominate the support, implying an intense proximity while also revealing the rigorous gaze of the artist as he has examined her features, capturing them in thick, highly textured oils. The face is the focus of the painting, is the focus of the viewer, and it is made palpably apparent that it was long the focus of the artist himself during their hours in the studio. It is not only the personality of the sitter that has been condensed into these oils, but also some sense of her physical presence, and the oils, combined with the composition and the wryly smiling, inquisitive face hint too at a personal relationship that has informed the painting.
There is a pulpy mass to some of the impasto that appears almost organic, as though Freud has managed to condense some of the presence of his sitter on the surface. As Freud has said,
'I want paint to work as flesh... I have always had a scorn for 'la belle peinture' and 'la delicatesse des touches'. I know my idea of portraiture came from dissatisfaction with portraits that resembled people. I would wish my portraits to be of the people, not like them. Not having a look of the sitter, being them. I didn't want to get just a likeness like a mimic, but to portray them, like an actor. As far as I am concerned the paint is the person. I want it to work for me just as flesh does' (Freud, quoted in L. Gowing, Lucian Freud, London, 1982, pp. 190-91).
This aim to capture flesh, to make it real in oils, to make a picture that is some form of extension of his subject, is made all the more pertinent in Head of a Woman by the fact that it shows Susanna Chancellor long a friend of the artist, who has featured in pictures many times since the 1980s to the present day. Freud famously paints only people who interest him, and usually takes his subjects from his friends and family. As he has said, 'If you don't know them, it can only be like a travel book' (Freud, quoted in ibid., p. 56). One of the reasons that Freud has had to rely on this intimacy with his subjects is the sheer length of time that his paintings take to execute, with sittings lasting hour after hour, pictures sometimes being painted over a stretch of months. In Head of a Woman, Freud's painstaking attention to capturing the features of his friend is evident in the density of the oils with which he has captured her face. And yet it is a reflection of his virtuosity that the image has a freshness, a spontaneity, that lends it the impression that it was not the product of a long investigation of his sitter's features, but instead the result of one moment in their friendship. The glow of the face, accentuated by the contrasts between some of the flesh tones with which he has rendered it, as well as the quizzical angle at which the subject looks at the viewer, engaging our gaze, conspire to give this painting a living, changing quality, as though it were the product of some frozen instant rather than of a painting process so long and laborious that only a good friend or family member would agree to endure it...
Freud's use of the people in his circle as subjects is therefore in part a practical necessity. He needs sitters who are willing to sacrifice a great deal of time in order for him to be able to create a work of art. At the same time, in Head of a Woman, Freud has chosen to paint one of his regular subjects, someone whose features he has long known; he is therefore able to scrutinise the features with a profound knowledge and familiarity, and to come closer to some truth about the character of the sitter and about life itself. It is in the mass of paints with which Head of a Woman has been rendered that one perceives the reason for which his paintings are associated with existentialism.