Lucian Freud’s tender portrait from the master of painterly scrutiny: ‘It seems to invite the viewer closer’
As the artist’s Girl with Closed Eyes comes to market for the first time, Alastair Smart examines Freud’s approach to the female nude — and the atypical softness ascribed to this work
Lucian Freud (1922-2011), Girl with Closed Eyes, 1986-87 (detail). Oil on canvas. Sold for £15,174,500 on 1 March 2022 at Christie’s in London
The canon of Western art includes a long line of images of sleeping female nudes: Sleeping Venus (1508-10) by Giorgione, for example; the marble sculpture Sleeping Nymph (1820-24) by Canova; Reclining Nude (1919) by Modigliani; plus a number of depictions by Picasso of his slumbering lover, Marie-Thérèse Walter.
Lucian Freud’s painting Girl with Closed Eyes — which is being offered in the 20th/21st Century: London Evening Sale at Christie’s on 1 March 2022 — can be considered part of that tradition. However, where most depictions of sleeping female nudes capture women as objects of desire, Freud’s art typically does something different.
He was anything but ascetic when it came to the pleasures of the flesh, of course. Freud painted copious pictures of his abundant lovers naked, and the canvas coming to auction is no exception: he had a brief relationship with its subject, Janey Longman, at the time of its execution in the mid-1980s.
Yet his images scrutinise rather than sexualise. In the case of Girl with Closed Eyes, Longman is captured, in close-up, lying on a bed in the artist’s studio. Her eyes are closed, her lips parted, her head turned slightly to one side and tipped back in poised repose.
Lucian Freud (1922-2011), Girl with Closed Eyes, 1986-87. Oil on canvas. Sold for £15,174,500 on 1 March 2022 at Christie’s in London
Longman’s hair spills onto the mattress beneath her, Freud’s tactile impasto bringing each strand into tousled life. Using a palette ranging from mauves and venous blues to ochres and Cremnitz white, the artist maps her skin’s every sheen, freckle and furrow with attention.
Part of what makes Girl with Closed Eyes special is the fact that Freud invests it with atypical tenderness. True, his view of Longman remains forensic, as can be seen in the taut lines of her throat and clavicle, and the way that gravity gathers her lips. But this is balanced by the swell of her breast and the calm, almost serene expression.
There’s a certain softness to the painting, which places it more comfortably in the Western tradition of sleeping female nudes than one might have expected from a portrait by Freud.
Longman had been part of Freud’s social circle for a number of years before this portrait was painted. The daughter of Lady Elizabeth Longman (a bridesmaid at Queen Elizabeth II’s wedding) and the publisher Mark Longman, she worked as both a food writer and artist.
In his biography of Freud, Breakfast with Lucian, Geordie Greig describes Longman as ‘translucently beautiful and clever, with an aristocratic elegance and learning which was lightly worn’. In 2000, she would go on to have a son with her then partner, the novelist Edward St Aubyn: they called him Lucian.
Lucian Freud (1922-2011), Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, 1995. Oil on canvas. 59⅝ x 86¼ in (151.3 x 219 cm). Sold for $33,641,000 on 13 May 2008 at Christie’s in New York. Artwork: © The Lucian Freud Archive. All rights reserved 2022 / Bridgeman Images
Freud is probably best known for his full-length nudes — such as Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (above), a portrait of the Jobcentre clerk Sue Tilley, which became the most expensive work by a living artist ever sold at auction when it reached $33.6 million at Christie’s in 2008.
Girl with Closed Eyes, by contrast, is cropped just below Longman’s right breast, allowing for an even greater sense of scrutiny than usual.
Freud once said that he wanted his paint not so much to represent flesh as to be flesh — and thanks to his bold brushwork, Longman does seem to appear in near-sculptural form before us.
Girl with Closed Eyes at Lucian Freud’s studio in London. Photo: © David Dawson. All rights reserved 2022 / Bridgeman Images
The canvas was sold as soon as it was painted and, having been in the same private collection ever since, now comes to market for the first time. It has been exhibited only occasionally in the three and a half decades of its existence, notably in the landmark retrospective Lucian Freud Paintings, which toured the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris, the Hayward Gallery in London and the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin in 1987-88.
Another of the artist’s biographers, William Feaver — writing in the recently published The Lives of Lucian Freud: Fame, 1968-2011 — described the work as ‘exquisite’.
It’s a painting marked by ‘the pleasure that comes from two people enjoying each other’s company,’ says Katharine Arnold, Christie’s head of Post-War and Contemporary Art in London.
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‘The dexterous handling of the paint sumptuously brings every detail of the sitter’s body into focus,’ she adds. ‘The gentle framing of her pose within the composition seems to invite the viewer closer still, a witness to this moment of contemplation… It’s one of the most special works I’ve handled in my career.’
Not very much is known about the relationship between artist and sitter. Longman hasn’t, for example, written an account of her time with Freud in the way that another of his muses, Celia Paul, did in her memoir, Self-Portrait.
Lucian Freud (1922-2011), Two Women, 1992, a portrait of Janey Longman and India Jane Birley. Artwork: © The Lucian Freud Archive. All rights reserved 2022 / Bridgeman Images
What we do know for sure, though, is that Longman is the subject of two other Freud paintings: Naked Girl (1985-86) and the double portrait Two Women (1992), above, where she is depicted alongside the artist and businesswoman India Jane Birley.
Around the time the latter painting was executed, or perhaps slightly before, Greig says, ‘Lucian quietly and undramatically ended the affair’. The painting Girl with Closed Eyes, however, definitively and disarmingly lives on.