The present composition is part of an impressive series of portraits of E.O.W. (Stella West) which began in the early 1950s and continued until the 1970s. Auerbach paints his friends and E.O.W. is one of his most frequently used subjects. Isabel Carlisle discusses the artist's choice of subject matter in the recent Royal Academy exhibition catalogue, 'Auerbach paints only friends - friends who have devoted a considerable portion of their lives to his art - their faces become familiar to the viewer with studied looking. However, while he is trying for a likeness, the work may not always be immediately accepted as a replica; he has taken on almost no portrait commissions. Rather, the aim is to celebrate life through the energy specific to all individuals through their changing moods and to fuse those energies with his own furious energy during the painting's execution. Auerbach qualifies this by saying, 'The energy of the execution may first strike the viewer, but it is in pursuit of a geometry of an exact expression'' (see I. Carlisle, Exhibition catalogue, Frank Auerbach, Paintings and Drawings 1954-2001, London, Royal Academy, 2001, p. 62).
Discussing the E.O.W. portraits of 1961, the year preceding the execution date of the present work, Auerbach comments, 'All of the heads of E.O.W. were worked from E.O.W. for a period of 20 years, 3 times a weeks, year in year out. They were all done by electric light, in the evening. I think it may well be that electric light had something to do with the look that they had, that is, the particular colours and the paint.
It may have been that the reiteration of the effort and the fact that I could afford so little material played some small part in the look, the thickness of the paint. Also, I think that there was then current a sort of linear illustrative painting. I seem to remember that in the early '50s there was talk of people painting a show in three months, or something like that, which seemed to me somehow superficial and illustrative and deedy and skimpy and just not what paintings require, and it may be part of this instinct of revulsion against the current art may have produced in me a strong feeling that one would try to emphasise what was more permanent than a decorative or linear concoction. This was massive substance, and in some way one was trying to grasp this, in some way this was the permanence. This was where the energy came from, and it may be the thickness of the paint was something to do with this since my way of painting is not a question of the paint choosing a uniform' (see F. Auerbach, Exhibiton catalogue, Frank Auerbach, London, Arts Council of Great Britain, 1978, p. 14).
E.O.W. looking into Fire II, is unusual in that it is sold with a small piece of note paper with an ink drawing by the artist which can be seen as a 'key' to the painting, perhaps not exactly, but as a guide for the viewer.