‘In two other portraits, this time of Freud’s daughter Esther (1982-3) and Ib (1983-4) each brushstroke is readily perceivable. In these portraits, Freud presents by painterly means his perception of the faces, surrounding each form and modulation with soft strokes’ – R. Lauter
‘I want paint to work as flesh ... I have always had a scorn for “la belle peinture” and “la delicatesse des touches” ... 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’ – L. Freud
‘[Head of Ib and Head of Esther] are indeed truly outstanding. Given their small scale they are amazingly powerful and touching: Lucian at the height of his powers’ – W. Feaver
‘I wanted to be a great beauty and there I was myself. I did think that I looked like a very large person in the painting and I’m quite a small person. And I said, “I’m not as big as that” and he said “that’s what you think.” And I always liked that ... he’s not trying to depict an image of me. He’s painting who I am’ – E. Freud
‘We’ve been close since I was 12 or 13, when my sister used to take me to London on the train to see him ... I sat for him when I was 16 ... That’s how I got to know him. We’d never lived in the same city before’ – E. Freud
‘To name them was to acknowledge them, intensively so, often after missing the childhood years’ – W. Feaver
‘I like them when I can talk to them and take them out ... If you’re not there when they are in the nest you can be more there later’ – L. Freud
‘I see each picture as representing a period in my life. It is more than a snap shot – [it] is a substantial enough period to have had to see how you felt that time, your state of mind, your concerns and what you were going through encapsulated’ – I. Boyt
Masterpieces of human observation, rendered with intimate strokes of rich, warm impasto, Lucian Freud’s Head of Esther and Head of Ib stand among the artist’s greatest small format portraits. Shown together and individually in almost every major exhibition of his work, including the landmark retrospectives at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D. C. (1988), Tate Britain, London (2002-2003) and the National Portrait Gallery, London (2012), the works represent extraordinarily tender tributes to the blossoming relationship between the artist and his grown-up daughters Esther Freud and Isobel (‘Ib’) Boyt. Painted in the early 1980s, when both women were in their early twenties, the works take their place within the finest period of Freud’s oeuvre: a period in which, on the brink of his sixties, he held a piercing mirror up to himself and his family. Alongside his iconic self-portraits of this time, Freud began to paint his children again, more than a decade after his first paintings of his eldest offspring. Having all but missed their childhoods, it was through portraiture that Freud was ultimately able to build relationships with Esther, Ib and their siblings. In the hours, days, weeks and months spent together in the studio, Freud scrutinised every inch of their physical characters: the shape of their profiles, the play of light and shade across their cheekbones, the radiant glow of their skin, the sweep of their jawlines – so close to his own – and the natural fall of their hair. With their tightly-cropped, closely-zoomed format of fourteen-by-twelve inches – a scale largely unique to this period of Freud’s practice – the present works invite comparison with Francis Bacon’s celebrated portrait heads of the same size. Light dances behind Esther’s eyes, captured in a single flash of Cremnitz white; blood pulses visibly beneath Ib’s delicately flushed cheeks, moulding the contours of her face. In the precise caress of each brushstroke and near-sculptural application of colour, Freud brings himself closer than ever before to the daughters he had barely known.
The early 1980s was a time of glorious professional triumph for Freud: the culmination of a painterly practice that by this point spanned over three decades. In 1981 he was hailed, along with Bacon, as the father of ‘New Figuration’ after his work was included in the ground-breaking exhibition A New Spirit in Painting at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. In 1983 he was appointed Commander of the British Empire in recognition of his contribution to British painting. During this time, Freud produced some of the finest works in his oeuvre, marked by an increasing sense of introspective poise. Alongside the distinguished painting Two Irishmen in W11 of 1984-85, as well as his career-defining self-portraits of 1981 and 1985, the ageing Freud began to reconnect with his closest family members, reaching out to his children through the medium of paint. Born just two years apart, Ib and Esther had known very little of their father during the early stages of their lives. Esther, now a celebrated novelist, spent her formative years in Morocco with her sister Bella and mother Bernardine Coverley – a period that inspired her acclaimed semi-autobiographical novel Hideous Kinky. Ib and her three siblings Alexander (‘Ali’), Rose and Susie also spent large parts of their youth abroad, led on sporadic, exotic voyages by their mother Suzy Boyt. Though Freud had painted his elder daughters Annie and Annabel – the children of Kitty Garman – during the earlier part of his career, it was not until the late 1970s and 1980s that Esther, Bella and the Boyt siblings became his primary subjects. Together, these works would form their own grand canon of family portraits, in which the present two works occupy pride of place. In 1983, Freud completed the remarkable tableau Large Interior, WII (After Watteau), in which he united disparate members of his vastly extended family, including Ib’s mother Suzy, Bella, his mistress Celia Paul and Suzy’s son Kai. Contemporaneous with this landmark painting, Head of Esther and Head of Ib represent Freud at his most devoted, seeking reconciliation even at the height of his success.
Freud’s adoption of the fourteen-by-twelve inch canvas during this period is indicative of his close affinity with Francis Bacon, who favoured the format during the 1960s and 1970s as a means of capturing his most treasured subjects. Like Bacon, Freud exploits the small-scale canvas to encounter the flesh at close range, zooming in on its visceral flaws and undulations. However, both painters adopt very different approaches. ‘The single head, fourteen inches by twelve, was from 1961 onwards the scene of some of Bacon’s most ferocious investigations’, writes John Russell. ‘Just as a gunshot sometimes leaves an after-echo or parallel report, so these small concentrated heads carry their ghosts within them’ (J. Russell, Francis Bacon, London 1993, p. 99). In these works, Bacon brings the essence of his subjects violently to the surface, only to bury them again beneath angst-ridden torrents of paint. Freud, by contrast, recreates the presence of his sitters with intense precision, using a coarse hog’s hair paintbrush to coax his pigment into individual strands of hair and textured swathes of skin. Unlike Bacon’s tortured beings, the faces of Esther and Ib are glowing, cherubic and peaceful. Through impeccable control of his medium, he gradually builds their likenesses, stroking their hair and caressing their faces, seeing them anew – perhaps – as the babies he never held. The depth of Freud’s palette – ranging from deep reds to warm pinks, rich mahogany and chestnut browns, and subtle tones of blue and olive – invites comparison with the carefully-studied realism practised by Old Masters such as Franz Hals, Gustave Courbet and Théodore Géricault. Lustrous streaks and flecks of impasto sit upon thinner washes of paint, intercepted and dissected by finely-combed threads of colour. Through the sumptuous interplay of highlights and shadows, their faces seem to lift off the canvas and into the space before the viewer. In Head of Esther and Head of Ib, Freud’s daughters become living, breathing realities, preserved forever by the intensity of Freud’s observation and the piercing exactitude of his touch.
HEAD OF ESTHER
Intimately framed and tenderly observed, Head of Esther is among the greatest of Freud’s portraits of his daughter Esther Freud: the renowned author. Having reconnected with him during her teens, the present work depicts Esther at around twenty years old, shortly after she first began sitting for him. Bathed in soft light, the composition demonstrates Freud’s exquisite command of his medium at the height of his powers. The artist lavishes his attention upon the sharply-defined contours of Esther’s face: the elegant curve of her right cheekbone, the delicate shape of her nose, the warm depth of her olive skin and the crinkled wave of her hair. Through thick layers of paint, Freud relishes in the sculptural beauty and classical proportions of Esther’s features, capturing every idiosyncrasy of her visage. Rich streaks of impasto chart the play of highlights across her cheek, whilst a single stroke of pure Cremnitz white infuses her eye with life. Recalling her reaction to her father’s work, Esther has described how, in an earlier portrait, ‘I wanted to be a great beauty and there I was myself. I did think that I looked like a very large person in the painting and I’m quite a small person. And I said, “I’m not as big as that” and he said “that’s what you think.” And I always liked that ... he’s not trying to depict an image of me. He’s painting who I am’ E. Freud, quoted in P. Hoban, Lucian Freud: Eyes Wide Open, New York 2014, p. 105).
Esther’s mother Bernardine Coverley met Freud in a Soho bar in 1959, and gave birth to Bella just two years later. By the time Esther was born in 1963, however, their relationship had begun to show signs of strain. Frustrated by the artist’s string of lovers, Bernardine left the country on a bohemian escapade around North Africa, accompanied by her four- and six-year-old daughters: a whirlwind episode that later provided Esther with the inspiration for her most famous novel Hideous Kinky, subsequently adapted into a film starring Kate Winslet. On their return to the UK, Lucian would occasionally visit them at their home in East Sussex, and made a vivid impression upon the young Esther. ‘He was glamorous, elegant and from a different world’, she recalls (E. Freud, quoted in P. Hoban, Lucian Freud: Eyes Wide Open, New York 2014, p. 78). As they grew older, Esther and Bella began to see their father more regularly. ‘We’ve been close since I was 12 or 13, when my sister used to take me to London on the train to see him’, Esther has explained. ‘I sat for him when I was 16 ... That’s how I got to know him. We’d never lived in the same city before’ (E. Freud, quoted in B. Davies, ‘Did Lucian Freud love his art more than his children?’, Mail Online, 23 July 2011).
Having moved to London, Esther started training as an actress at The Drama Centre, and began sitting for her father. Her younger half-sister Susie recalls how, at around the time of the present work, ‘Esther ... was appearing in a smash-hit review she and a friend had written called I Didn’t Know Celery Could Kill You, which was the best thing I have ever seen about sex and the single girl. In one fortnight I saw it 11 times’ (S. Boyt, ‘Standing in the shadows’, The Observer, 27 June 2004). Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Esther featured in a number of Freud’s paintings, including the full-length nude Esther (1980), as well as the double portrait Bella and Esther (1987-88) and the single head Esther of 1991. As she later put it, sitting for Freud was a way to ‘get the good bit’ of him. ‘My father had charisma, he had the ability to make whoever he was with feel very special’, she recalls. ‘With each person he was with he focused so much that they felt glowing. I was glowing. I felt I was important to him ... in those hours and hours I had so much of his attention. He would paint, tell me stories, sing me songs, give me food and take me for dinner. He makes you feel wonderful. I did feel very close to him’ (E. Freud, quoted in interview with A. Elkann, http://alainelkanninterviews.com/esther-freud/[accessed 12 December 2015]). With its rich, warm palette and mesmerising technical intricacy, the present work is among the most vivid eulogies to the deep companionship between Esther and her father.
HEAD OF IB
A vision of youthful serenity, Head of Ib is a masterful homage to another of Freud’s most significant muses: his daughter Isobel (‘Ib’) Boyt. Ib’s mother Suzy Boyt was a talented young artist whom Freud had met whilst teaching part-time at the Slade School, and between 1957 and 1969 the couple had four children: Ib’s older brother and sister Alexander (‘Ali’) and Rose, and her younger sister Susie. Between them, the Boyts came to define a significant portion of Freud’s output, but it was Ib who featured most prominently in his oeuvre. His depictions of her chart almost thirty years of her life: from Large Interior, Paddington (1968-69), in which she was just seven years old, to Ib Reading (1997), by which point she had her own children. The present work captures her in her early twenties, flushed and glowing in a state of carefree repose. Emblazoned against a deep red background, her hair falls softly behind her ear, streaked with sun-kissed blonde highlights. The whiteness of her vest is sharply illuminated against the creamy impasto of her skin. Exquisitely feathered brushstrokes capture the softness of the cushion beneath her head, darkened by the shadow of her profile. With each sweeping caress of the brush, Freud captures affection for his daughter on the brink of her young adult life. ‘I like them when I can talk to them and take them out’, he explained. ‘... If you’re not there when they are in the nest you can be more there later’ (L. Freud, quoted in W. Feaver, Lucian Freud, London 2002, p. 20). For Ib, too, who began sitting from him in her teens, having her portrait painted was ‘a way of having a relationship with my dad’ (I. Boyt, quoted in J. Auerbach and W. Feaver, Sitting for Freud, BBC 2004).
Freud had first painted Ib’s mother Suzy in the seminal portrait Woman Smiling of 1958-59: a work that marked a critical turning point in Freud’s figurative language. Though she would reappear as part of the cast of Large Interior, W11 (After Watteau) during the 1980s, it was her children who became the principal focus of his artistic attention during this period. Though Ali and Rose had featured as youngsters in the 1965 painting Reflection with Two Children (Self-Portrait), it was not until they reached their late teens that Freud and Suzy’s offspring began to take centre stage in his oeuvre: from Ali (1974), to the full length nude Rose (1978-79), to the three portraits of Susie from 1988-89. Like Esther and Bella, the Boyts also had an unconventional childhood. Susie describes how, when Ali, Rose and Ib were still very young, their mother bought an old cargo ship, took them out of school and set sail for Trinidad. ‘At one stage the crew mutinied and my mother had to stand over them with a gun, or so the story went’, she recalls. ‘At another point, my brother [Kai], a babe in arms, fell overboard and two sailors nearly clanked heads with my mother as they all dived in to save him ... in Trinidad when the ship was declared unseaworthy and no longer viable as a means of support for my family, they were deported back to England’ (S. Boyt, ‘Standing in the shadows’, The Observer, 27 June 2004). As the children came to know their father during their teens and early twenties, their thrilling lives continued to unfold: Ib explored the sights of India, Ali opened a skateboarding venue in north London, Rose worked as a club DJ and Susie went on to become a well-known writer.
The present work captures Ib in the midst of this exciting epoch. ‘I see each picture as representing a period in my life’, she has explained. ‘It is more than a snap shot – [it] is a substantial enough period to have had to see how you felt that time, your state of mind, your concerns and what you were going through encapsulated’ (I. Boyt, quoted in J. Auerbach and W. Feaver, Sitting for Freud, BBC 2004). Sumptuously rendered, it stands among the finest pictures of Ib, representing not only a moment of contented youthful bliss, but also standing as a true embodiment of Freud’s painterly ambition. ‘I want paint to work as flesh’, he once said. ‘... 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’ (L. Freud, quoted in L. Gowing, Lucian Freud, London 1982, pp. 190-91). In Head of Ib, Freud meticulously combs his pigment into a visceral expression of human anatomy, capturing the life-force that pulses beneath his daughter’s skin.
‘... AND WHO CLOSER THAN MY CHILDREN?’
Unlike so many of Freud’s portraits, his paintings of his own children were almost always named. In attempting to cultivate relationships with them after years of emotional detachment – as William Feaver has asserted – ‘To name them was to acknowledge them, intensively so’ (W. Feaver, Lucian Freud, London 2002, p. 20). Throughout his career, Freud was adamant that he was interested in his subjects primarily as animals – as corporeal, rather than emotional, entities. In Head of Esther and Head of Ib, however, the sheer intimacy of Freud’s observation points to a moment of breakthrough in his newfound companionship with his daughters. The paint itself, so painstakingly applied, becomes a tool not just of reproduction, but of reconciliation – a means of bringing himself closer to Esther and Ib. It is this sense of familial comfort – of uninhibited ease in each other’s presence – that is so eloquently captured in these works. ‘I only paint the people who are close to me’, Freud later claimed, ‘and who closer than my children?’ (L. Freud, quoted in W. Feaver, Lucian Freud, London 2002, p. 20).