LUCIAN FREUD (1922-2011)
LUCIAN FREUD (1922-2011)
LUCIAN FREUD (1922-2011)
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LUCIAN FREUD (1922-2011)

Plant Fragment

LUCIAN FREUD (1922-2011)
Plant Fragment
oil on canvas
24 x 22in. (61 x 55.8cm.)
Painted circa 1977
A gift from the artist to the present owner.
G. Aloi, Lucian Freud Herbarium, London 2019, p. 138 (illustrated in colour, p. 139; dated 'circa 1970').
London, Garden Museum, Lucian Freud Plant Portraits, 2022-2023, p. 24 (illustrated in colour, p. 25; dated 'circa 1970').

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Claudia Schürch
Claudia Schürch Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale

Lot Essay

Gifted by the artist to the present owner, Plant Fragment (circa 1977) is a bewitching portrait of a plant by Lucian Freud. Its puckered green leaves emerge from a disc of dark soil in a terracotta pot, caught by the cool light of day. Freud paints with the same intense scrutiny he applies to his human sitters, capturing every vein and wrinkle in each uniquely formed leaf. Subtle shifts in hue and texture track where they have browned and curled at the margins. Ultrafine brushstrokes depict the minute hairs that fur their stems. The pot sits on wooden slats of the kind seen in garden furniture, and swatches of grey and raw umber begin to convey the backdrop’s light and shade. Elsewhere the canvas is left white, with faint marks sketching the remainder of the plant’s form. The contrast between these areas and the extraordinary detail of the completed leaves sheds fascinating light on Freud’s process. Alongside another fragmentary plant painting, Still Life with Zimmerlinde (circa 1950), the work was included in the 2022-2023 exhibition Lucian Freud: Plant Portraits at the Garden Museum, London, which celebrated the important role played by plants across the artist’s oeuvre.

Freud’s career-long fascination with plant life was seeded early during his time with the artist and horticulturalist Cedric Morris, under whom he studied at the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing between 1939 and 1940. He honed his gaze on graphic, crystalline forms such as thistles, palms and gorse sprigs, capturing veins, stems and leaves with hard-lined concentration. Plants continued to punctuate his practice as his style evolved over the following decades, ranging from household aspidistras to cyclamens, Scillonian sea-hollies, Greek lemons, banana trees at Ian Fleming’s estate in Jamaica, and the unkempt growth in his own Notting Hill garden. As Giovanni Aloi writes, ‘the intense scrutiny that characterised Lucian Freud’s work led him to treat plants as subjects rather than passive objects … He pulled them from the background—where they had been relegated since the Renaissance—to the front of the canvas’ (G. Aloi, ‘Lucian Freud: Plant Portraits’, in Lucian Freud: Plant Portraits, exh. cat. The Garden Museum, London 2022, p. 60).

Plants would go on to interact with Freud’s human sitters in their own characterful ways. Among the most unforgettable are the formidable potted yucca in Interior at Paddington (1951, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool) and the Zimmerlinde—an indoor plant reputedly taken as a cutting from Sigmund Freud’s home in Vienna—that spreads its heart-shaped leaves over Freud’s daughter, Isobel, in Large Interior, Paddington (1968-1969, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid). The latter shares with the present work the hallmarks of Freud’s technique during this period: while retaining a forensic level of detail, the densely-worked pigment has taken on its own textural life.

Freud was looking outdoors with increasing frequency in the seventies. In 1970 he painted a series of pictures of the wasteground behind his Paddington studio, bursting with unruly sprays of buddleia. These have been seen by some as a reflection on the recent death of his father, the architect Ernst L. Freud. The present painting, with the plant set amid poignant blank space, might offer similar implications of loss, hope and memento mori. Freud was no symbolist, however. He always dealt unsparingly with what was in front of him: plant and human subjects alike are painted as they are, unburdened by allegory or narrative. From 1977 to 1980 he worked on the magisterial Two Plants (Tate, London), which depicts a section of his garden in painstaking close-up. He described the work as ‘lots of little portraits of leaves’ (L. Freud, quoted in W. Feaver, The Lives of Lucian Freud: Fame 1968-2011, London 2019, p. 112). In the present work, this same exacting focus brings the plant to life in all its complex, singular and ultimately ungraspable essence.

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