Please note this work has been requested for the forthcoming exhibition Lucian Freud Portraits that will take place at the National Portrait Gallery in London 9 February-27 May 2012 and at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas 2 July-28 October 2012
'The turning point in Freud's work with the human clay, when he moved decisively away from the Ingriste modulation of flatness by contour, came in 1958 and 1959 with Woman Smiling'
(R. Hughes, Lucian Freud: Paintings, exh. cat., London 1989, p. 18)
Once described by Robert Hughes as 'the turning point in Freud's work with the human clay' (R. Hughes, Lucian Freud Paintings, exh. cat. London, 1987, p. 18), Woman Smiling is a majestic, larger than life-size portrait of Lucian Freud's young lover and prize-winning Slade School of Fine Art pupil, Suzy Boyt. Painted in 1958-59, it represents the only existing single portrait of the woman who was to mother four of Freud's children from 1957 to 1969 (Ali, Rose, Isobel and Susie) and whose friendship with the artist was to last many decades; she reappears over twenty years later, side by side with her son Kai in Freud's Large Interior, W11 (After Watteau) (1981-1983). Woman Smiling marks a landmark departure from the artist's earlier portraits with their careful contours, flat surfaces and empirical precision, influenced by the Neo-classical painter Jean-Auguste- Dominique Ingres. Instead, in Woman Smiling, Freud begins to embrace a more gestural and painterly mark making offering comparison with the works of Franz Hals, Gustave Courbet and Théodore Géricault, as well as the emotive power of his contemporary Francis Bacon and the modern master, Pablo Picasso. Replacing his fine sable brush with a coarse hog's hair paintbrush, Freud sculpts the paint into a new surface that perfectly expresses the light and modulation of his subject's face, the rich impasto and expressionist brushstrokes building a unique human physicality. This technique has been a celebrated hallmark of the artist's oeuvre ever since. Woman Smiling is a tender and captivating portrait of a young woman caught in a moment of happy reflection. Smiling softly with her lips slightly parted and her eyes bashfully averting the artist's gaze, she appears enamoured, radiant with a bright blush illuminating her cheekbones. Executed early in their relationship, this deeply affectionate painting, perfectly captures the intimacy and attraction that existed between the two lovers. As the artist once said, 'Painters who use life itself as their subject-matter do so in order to translate life into art almost literally, as it were. The painter makes real to others his innermost feelings about all that he cares for' (L. Freud, 'Some Thoughts on Painting' Encounter, July 1954 quoted in W. Feaver, Lucian Freud, London 2002, p. 26).
Woman Smiling was formerly owned by two distinguished collectors and early patrons of Lucian Freud, Lady Rothermere and Simon Sainsbury. Lady Rothermere, who married Ian Fleming, the author of James Bond in 1952, introduced Freud to one of the great loves of his life, Caroline Blackwood in the early 1950s. She began to collect works by Freud in the late 1940s and amassed an exceptional group from this time as well as becoming the subject of two celebrated portraits in the early 1950s. She acquired Woman Smiling directly from the artist around the time of its execution and kept it until 1973 when it was sold at Christie's in London, alongside other works from her collection. Simon Sainsbury became one of Freud's greatest patrons and upon his death bequeathed three important works from across Freud's career to the Tate, London including Girl with a Kitten (1947) and The Painter's Mother (1972). One of the greatest collections of twentieth century British art ever assembled, he too was the subject of a much-celebrated portrait, Red Haired Man with Glasses realised from 1987-88.
In Woman Smiling, Freud fully embraces the possibilities of his medium replacing the thin and pliant brushstrokes of his sable brush for a coarse, hog-hair brush pushing the rich paint in such a way as to define the physiognomy and the muscles that constitute the contours of the face. In this respect, Freud was integrating his earlier influence of Ingres with the lively strokes of painters such as Franz Hals, Gustave Courbet and Théodore Géricault. Courbet and Géricault, two great exponents of modern realism, deeply eschewed the theatricality and classicism of the French Academy in favour of the depiction of physical reality, regardless of how blemished or imperfect. This essence of the real, fallible, living person was to find its way into Freud's method and most effectively in Woman Smiling. As Robert Hughes so eloquently describes, '[in Woman Smiling] the marks are brusquer; they find their equivalent for stringy hair and blotched complexion with improvised force, and their light from the white ground shows through. Now the small forms beneath the skin, the small bunches of muscle and little tossing wedges and crescents claim Freud's attention. In their folding, puckering and slippage there is more protuberance and pressure, linked to greater agility and freedom of drawing. The shadow under the left cheekbone, prolonged in a line to the raised corner of the mouth and joined by the serpentine shadow of the buccal muscles, is disturbing almost like a scar: it perverts the wholeness of the face, while giving it a pleated solidity' (op. cit., p. 18). This pronounced effect and the newly found plasticity of Freud's composition was to be carried over into his portraits and nude figures of the 1960s such as Pregnant Girl (1960-61) depicting Bernardine Coverley lying heavy, asleep against the worn upholstery of an armchair. The contrast of her skin and dark curl of her hair are made up of confident brushstrokes, the whole painting conveying a sense of light and atmosphere. This method, which was initiated with Woman Smiling, has become a hallmark of Freud's practice ever since.
Freud first seriously embarked upon painting in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In his paintings from this period, particularly those depicting his first wife Kitty Garman, daughter of the sculptor Jacob Epstein, Freud's attraction to the modern classicism of Jean-Auguste- Dominique Ingres is particularly apparent. In Girl with Roses (1947-48), Kitty appears fully illuminated, the flat shapes and smooth contours of her face and body carefully attended to by the artist. Each precise detail, from the unravelled caning of the chair to the small intricate light reflections in her large hazel eyes, is incorporated into the painting. Once described as the 'Ingres of Existentialism' (Ibid., p. 16), Freud's interest in the artist is perceptible in Girl in a Green Dress (1954) painted of his second wife, Lady Caroline Blackwood a few years later. Here Freud retains the same careful attention to detail but begins to add the effects of chiaroscuro, of light and shade, to his rendering of the figure.
'Around 1956, Freud exchanged his finely pointed sable brushes for stiffer hogshair and began to loosen his style, gradually amplifying his touch. Woman Smiling (1958-1959) marked a transformation in his painting style and can be seen as a landmark work'
(Tate Britain exhibition, Lucian Freud, June-September 2002).
During these early years Freud encountered Weeping Woman (1937), a work by fellow artist Pablo Picasso depicting his lover Dora Maar. Roland Penrose, a friend of Freud's had commissioned the artist to travel with the painting from London to Brighton to be showcased in an exhibition. Freud installed the painting on a seat opposite him in his railway carriage and studied it closely for the entire journey. Here was a painting, deeply transfigured without any striking likeness to the sitter, yet it projected a concrete sense of the woman's aura. As the artist said, 'I was so amazed that the bright sunlight in no way made it any worse or more garish or weaker or more painty. It seemed it was as powerful as possible' (Lucian Freud quoted in W. Feaver, 'Beyond Feeling', Lucian Freud, exh. cat., Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1993, p. 13). For Freud, this encounter with Picasso, a few years before the creation of Woman Smiling laid early ground from which to reconsider his own rigid and precise portraiture. By the middle of the 1950s, Freud himself professed, 'I got very tired with the way that I was working: I felt that it was a limited and limiting vehicle for me, and I also felt that my drawing and my making artefacts - graphic artefacts - stopped me from freeing myself' (Ibid.)
At this time, Freud's friendship with his contemporary, the painter Francis Bacon was especially close. The mid 1950s had been an equally important moment for Bacon with the emergence of his landmark first Papal portraits and the Men in Blue series and the two artists were engaged in intense discussion about how to depict physical presence. Bacon was devoted to the process of transmitting the raw, visceral reality of the figure to canvas, what he called 'the pulsations of a person' (Francis Bacon interview with David Sylvester quoted in D. Sylvester (ed.), The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1987, p. 174). As Bacon went on to elaborate, in a portrait 'you have to record the face. But with their face you have to try and trap the energy that emanates from them' (Ibid.). This practice, particularly manifest in Bacon's paintings depicting the screaming images of Pope Innocent X, helped to inform Freud's novel approach to Woman Smiling. As Freud said of his friend, 'his work impressed me, his personality affected me. He talked a great deal about the paint itself, carrying the form and imbuing the paint with this sort of life. He talked about packing a lot of things into one single brushstroke, which amused and excited me the idea of paint having that power' (Lucian Freud quoted in W. Feaver, 'Beyond Feeling', Lucian Freud, exh. cat., Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1993, p. 13).
In Woman Smiling, Freud adapts this approach to the canvas with a new and constructive energy, creating a sense of 'living volume' (L. Gowing quoted in Lucian Freud, London 1982, p. 118). The wedges of colour and form radiate with Suzy Boyt's inner spirit, apparently fulfilled and smiling with contentment. As Freud described, the difference between the photograph and the painted portrait is 'the degree to which feelings can enter the transaction from both sides. Photography can do this to a tiny extent, painting to an unlimited degree' (Lucian Freud, quoted in R. Hughes, op. cit., p. 18). It is this intimate relationship between painter and sitter that Freud so artfully transmits through his painting.
'Painters who use life itself as their subject-matter do so in order to translate life into art almost literally, as it were. The painter makes real to others his innermost feelings about all that he cares for'
(L. Freud, 'Some Thoughts on Painting', Encounter, July 1954 quoted in W. Feaver, Lucian Freud, London 2002, p. 26).
The transition to this method however was not an easy one. As Freud once admitted, 'I remember everything [about the period] because it was done with great difficulty' (op. cit., p. 132). It was partly this challenge that forced such a radical change in the artist's practice. Freud recognised the limitations of his existing approach to painting, explaining that 'by working in the way I did, it didn't evolve. Small brushes, fine canvas, used to drive me more and more agitated. I felt I wanted to free myself from this way of working. Also people said that they liked it, which I thought was really suspect' (Lucian Freud quoted in W. Feaver, op. cit., p. 19). He gave up the process of sitting in front of an easel in favour of standing, a ritual that allowed him greater movement and gestural freedom, resulting in a more painterly approach that he sustains to this day. However he could not altogether renounce the detailed practice of his earlier oeuvre. 'Sometimes when I've been staring too hard' he confessed 'I've noticed that I could see the circumference of my own eye' (Lucian Freud quoted in W. Feaver, op. cit., p.28). More than anything, Freud had a determined curiosity and ambition to change his painting from the middle of the 1950s and this came to fruition with Woman Smiling. As the artist once said, 'I felt more discontented than daring. It wasn't that I was abandoning something dear to me: it was more that I wanted to develop something unknown to me' (Lucian Freud quoted in W. Feaver, op. cit., p. 20).
Suzy Boyt reappears again in Freud's oeuvre over twenty years after Woman Smiling, to feature in his large group work, Large Interior W11 (after Watteau) (1981-1983). Seated on the bed in a staging of Jean-Antonie Watteau's masterpiece Pierrot Content (1812), Freud assembles individually from left to right, the painter Celia Paul, his daughter Bella Freud holding a mandolin, Suzy Boyt's son Kai as Pierrot, and Suzy Boyt herself. In front of the adults, lying supine, is the sister of Ali Boyt's girlfriend, a young child called Star. As Freud has often emphasised, 'my work is purely autobiographical. It is about myself and my surroundings' (Lucian Freud quoted in W. Feaver, op. cit., p.35). In this respect, the artist's sitters are most often his close friends or family. Indeed as the artist once said, 'who closer than my children?' (Ibid., p. 20).
Freud's children by Suzy Boyt have been the subjects of many of the artist's works. The paintings investigating their characters and characteristics have included in addition to Large Interior W11 (after Watteau), Reflection with Two Children (Self-Portrait) (1965) depicting Rose and Ali, Large Interior Paddington (1968-9) depicting Isobel affectionately nicknamed Ib, Portrait of Ali (1974), Ib (1977-78), Portrait of Rose (1978), Ib (1983-84), Head of Ib (1988), Susie (1988), Susie (1988-89), Susie (1989), Drawing of Ib (c. 1989), Rose (1990), Ib (1990), Kai (1991-92), Ib and her Husband (1992) and Ib Reading (1997). Ali, Rose, Ib and Susie Boyt were all named as he painted them unlike the many other elusive titles employed elsewhere in the artist's oeuvre. As William Feaver has explained, 'to name them was to acknowledge them; to paint them was to get to know them after missing the childhood years' (Ibid., p. 20). Freud once rationalised, 'if you're not there when they are in the nest you can be more there later' (Ibid., p. 20). For Rose Boyt, leaving home at the age of fifteen to live in a flat near her father's studio in West London, was the beginning of a new relationship with her father, 'he'd come round, and I'd make him a fried egg on toast and a cup of tea, and we used to just talk; I suppose that's when I started to know him as more of an adult' (Rose Boyt interview with Michelle Green in People, vol. 34 no. 12, 24 September 1990). The relationship between Freud and Suzy Boyt was equally unconventional, Suzy taking her young brood away with her alone on a series of travels aboard European cargo ships lasting eighteen months. Later they spent five months exploring Trinidad and the West Indies together, all without the company of the children's father. As Rose suggests 'both of my parents had very traditional families and maybe they wanted to be free of those kinds of constraints' (Ibid.). Nevertheless, the repeat appearance of Suzy Boyt and her children by Freud, as well as her son Kai, over the span of the artist's long career pays testimony to the deep bond he continues to share with the family.
Woman Smiling marks a decisive watershed in the practice and process of Lucian Freud's painting. Executed in 1958-59, it offers a technical departure, engaging in the emotive strength of his contemporaries Francis Bacon and Pablo Picasso as well as the liberated brushstrokes of his forbearer Franz Hals, and the modern realism of Courbet and Géricault. In embracing these approaches to using paint, Freud was engaging with a new kind of energy and ability to engage the viewer on a personal level. When looking at Woman Smiling one is capable of understanding the depth of feeling that existed between the two lovers, through the simple yet revealing smile and tempered expression of the young Suzy Boyt. It is this ability to capture the essence of the sitter that has established Freud as one of the greatest European chroniclers of the human experience of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. KA
'[In Woman Smiling] the marks are brusquer; they find their equivalent for stringy hair and blotched complexion with improvised force, and their light from the white ground shows through. Now the small forms beneath the skin, the small bunches of muscle and little tossing wedges and crescents claim Freud's attention. In their folding, puckering and slippage there is more protuberance and pressure, linked to greater agility and freedom of drawing. The shadow under the left cheekbone, prolonged in a line to the raised corner of the mouth and joined by the serpentine shadow of the buccal muscles, is disturbing almost like a scar: it perverts the wholeness of the face, while giving it a pleated solidity'
(R. Hughes, Lucian Freud: Paintings, London 1989, p. 18).