'There is something about a person being naked in front of me that invokes consideration. You could even call it chivalry on my part: in the case of my children, a father's consideration as well as a painter's. They make it all right to paint them. I don't feel I'm under pressure from them' (Lucian Freud cited in W. Feaver, Lucian Freud, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 2000, p. 35).
Painted between 1982 and 1983, this naked portrait of the artist's daughter Bella is one of several portraits that Freud painted of his grown-up daughters in the 1980s. These paintings, made after what was often several years of paternal absence on the artist's part, were a way for Freud and his now adult children to get to know one another. A collaborative product between father and daughter they are pictorial articulations of a personal as well as familial dialogue. 'If you are not there when they are in the nest' Freud has said, 'you can be more there later.' The naming of the sitters in these works, something which Freud rarely does, was also a way of formally and publicly acknowledging his children through his art. As a result many of these paintings are endowed with a special care and intensity that is reflective of the familial intimacy between artist and sitter as well as the paternal and painterly curiosity of the artist.
In this portrait of Bella, aged 21, a sense of tenderness rare to Freud's art is evoked through the defensiveness and seeming fragility of the pose she has chosen, lying diagonally along the coarse but familiar forms of Freud's large and tatty sofa. Leaning on a sheet almost protectively falling around her, the angular composition, with its characteristic overhead view, powerfully evokes an unusual sense of the preciousness and fragility of the seemingly small figure enfolded by the heavy and durable forms and material of Freud's studio setting. Depicting Bella unwrapped but also cosseted in the folds of material, precious, young and fragile, this painting is strangely reminiscent, in fact, of Freud's first painting of her made in 1961, Baby on a Green Sofa.
Such tenderness is offset in this work by the sober clarity of the image and the apparent objectivity in the equality of detail given to all areas of the painting. Held together in an angular patchwork of form that is in places deliberately heightened by coordinated and often diagonally contrasting directional brushstrokes, the painting throws back an image undeniably born of the cold impartiality and analytical scrutiny of Freud's famously concentrated gaze. The pose of Bella, slightly self-conscious and almost on the point of sheltering herself, seems to suggest that, unlike her sister Esther for example, she was less comfortable being naked under her father's famous all-seeing eye than others. In an interview given for the BBC film Sitting for Freud, Bella described how considerate Freud was in making the experience of sitting for him for this picture as pleasant as possible. 'However troubled I was I always felt that I left it at the door' she recalled, 'and then he always made a very nice atmosphere and he was very considerate, it was always nice and warm and there was lots of lovely food or we would go out ... he would make (everything) in a way that was special for each person so he could get our maximum cooperation or enjoyment' (Interview with Bella Freud, Jake Auerbach and William Feaver, Sitting for Freud, BBC Films, 2004).
The result of their collaboration, for Freud's portraits are always some kind of collaborative effort between artist and sitter, especially those involving the people closest to him, is a painting with an extraordinary mixture of objectivity, tenderness and sensitivity. Tenderness is a quality that, in his art, Freud is extremely wary of as it can undermine his painting's claim on reality and lead to sentimentality or worse, some kind of Expressionism. 'I'm very conscious of, as it were, Titus disease' Freud has said on this subject, 'that Rembrandt loved Titus so much he couldn't do him quite straight. I mean, I love the Titus pictures but they aren't terribly good are they? Titusitis' (cited in Lucian Freud, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 2000, p. 35).
It is a golden rule of Freud's painting, not to be indulgent to the subject matter. 'I'm so conscious that that is a recipe for bad art,' he has said (ibid., p. 15). Towards this end, as in his self-portraiture, Freud allows himself no sentiment with regard to his sitter once he has begun to paint. 'I paint what I see not what they would like me to see' is a familiar refrain of his. 'I paint people not because of what they are like, not exactly in spite of what they are like, but how they happen to be.' (ibid.) In painting his friends, lovers or daughters, he maintains the same emotional detachment, coldly responding in his dry style-less style to only that which his eye sees. It is a quality that over the years has undoubtedly infuriated many, but it is also one which is clearly essential for the success and validity of his painting. Painting the nude encourages this sense of dispassionate observation to come through more in his pictures. 'I'm really interested in people as animals' Freud has commented. 'Part of my liking to work from them naked is for that reason. Because I can see more; and it's also very exciting to see forms repeating right through the body and often the head as well. I like people to look as natural and as physically at ease as animals, as Pluto my whippet' (ibid., p. 42).
A passionate observer of reality, Freud has the rare gift of being able to translate the very life of his sitters into the medium of paint. It is an ability, all too rare amongst contemporary painters, that Freud has almost forced upon himself over the years with an iron will and a painstaking devotion to his craft. His laborious, painstaking and almost clinical style reflects this. His brushwork exhibits none of the flamboyant nonchalance of an all-too naturally gifted master such as Frans Hals. There are few if any painterly flourishes or self-indulgent gestural marks made for their own sake or for the pure enjoyment of painting in Freud's work. His is a precise and analytical dissection of the phenomena of reality made through careful craft, painstaking observation and deliberative action. Using dry hog's hair brushes that almost comb the paint rather than absorb it and leave the brushed material quality of the oil starkly visible on the surface, Freud builds his work slowly across the surface like a patchwork map of reality. In this way, the texture of the painting's surface becomes an integral part of the work as a whole.
In Bella much of the success of the composition is dependent upon this painterly texture which almost magically seems to piece together like a jigsaw into a startling unity of contrasts. At the centre of the X-shaped composition rests Bella's slightly protective and seemingly restless hand. For Freud, it is surprisingly brightly coloured, forming an exquisite jewel-like centre to the mosaic of forms and texture in the painting as a whole. It also offers a direct contrast with Bella's other hand which, more anxious and tense, tightly grips a fold in the white sheet beneath her. The enfolding nature of the composition, with the figure of Bella lying naked and somewhat vulnerable at its apex is enhanced by the strong textural pull into the corners of the work - a pull emphasized by the direction of the brushstrokes angled away from the central figure. In this way the textural surface of the work stresses the empty inanimate nature of the surroundings of the young, animated and vibrant figure at the painting's centre making her naked physical presence all the more startling and seemingly unexpected. 'What do I ask of painting?' Freud once remarked, 'I ask it to astonish, disturb, seduce, convince' (cited in Lucian Freud, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 2000, p. 37).