Youthfully inventive and characteristically self-assured, Boy with Bird is the only known impression of one of Lucian Freud's earliest lithographs. Recalling an older tradition of printmaking, Boy with Bird is an intimate work, rendered in the exacting and commanding lines of the artist's highly distinctive style. Freud made only three impressions of the only other known lithograph completed at this time, Horse on a Beach (1944), suggesting that the present work is also one of an equally small and special edition. Displaying motifs that are echoed throughout the artist's work of the early 1940s, Freud has drawn a young barefooted boy holding a squawking bird upside-down by its leg, while a larger bird flaps at his feet. Giving equal attention to every mark, the work is a confident assertion of Freud's unique imagination and independent spirit. Executed at a time when Freud was becoming increasingly interested in ways to distinguish different textures in his drawing and demonstrates an extraordinary devotion to detail. This is most evident in the masterful way in which he has chosen to depict the feathers on both birds in various intricate patterns, distinguishing it from natural shading on the boy's body which he has expressed with cross-hatching. White highlights pick out the larger bird's wings, a technique which is also found in many of his drawings of the period.
Famously a great animal lover, Freud had a particularly affinity with birds. Freud's first etching, The Bird, was completed in Paris in 1946, and depicts a delicate oiseau-mouche, which he used to buy in little cages in the market. He kept a pair of sparrow-hawks in his studio in Paddington, and had drawn 'bird people' since childhood. 'I was always excited by birds. If you touch wild birds, it's a marvelous feeling' (L. Freud quoted in W. Feaver, Lucian Freud, London 2002, p. 23). They feature in much of his early work, ranging from the dream-like Landscape with Birds (1940), where a gleeful boy flies through a mottled sky accompanied by birds dancing about in the wind, to more observational drawings, such as the highly accomplished Boy with a Pigeon (1944), and Dead Bird (1943). Birds also pervade his first serious commission - illustrating The Glass Tower, an anthology of poems by Nicholas Moore published in 1944.
While Boy with Bird retains a boyish sense of wit and fantasy, it is clear that by this stage Freud had found his individual voice. It has an illustrative, fairy-tale atmosphere that recalls the surreal doodles that he had made as a teenager, but at the same time demonstrates a burgeoning maturity. His uncompromising interpretation of the human form displays much stronger figure drawing than earlier attempts, and we can see the large eyes and enigmatic expressions that later become highly characteristic of Freud's early portraits. As William Feaver has written, 'Freud's work, from these early days and for nearly seventy years since, is all of a piece. His drawings, etchings and paintings share characteristics. It's said of him that he left off drawing in the Fifties in order to develop as a painter but this is not so really, for the concentration has been the same throughout and this concentration is founded on drawing. That's to say, the essential stimulus of drawing: drawing's virtues.' (W. Feaver, Subjects Rendered Wonderful: William Feaver on Five Freud Works on Paper, Christie's Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Auction Catalogue, London, 28 June 2011).