Painted between 1978 and 1979, Julia Sleeping is an intimate and engaging portrait of the artist's wife, her head on a pillow facing him. Seeing the oil in front of us, Julia faces us, creating an immediacy, a direct relationship between this sleeping woman and the viewer. We are quietly ushered into the private and secret world of the artist and his wife. Julia Sleeping is more than a vision, more than an accretion of oils: it is a record of intense emotion, of the artist's feelings as they are made palpable.
As well as having an obvious emotional core, Julia Sleeping is crucially, a strong record of a physical presence. Discussing, or rather dismissing, critics' fixation on the texture of his paintings, Auerbach railed that, 'I don't know how they can talk about thickness, really. Is blue better than red, thick better than thin? - no. But the sense of corporeal reality, that's what matters. English twentieth-century painting tends to be thin, linear and illustrative. I wanted something different; I wanted to make a painting that, when you saw it, would be like touching something in the dark' (Auerbach, quoted in R. Hughes, Frank Auerbach, London, 1990, p. 86). Here, more than anywhere else, we see Auerbach succeeding in depicting not only his wife, but also in depicting the sensation of being next to her. It is this 'corporeal reality' that he has managed so uniquely and so effectively to capture.
Auerbach had married Julia Wolstenholme, a fellow student at the Royal College of Art, in 1958, and she had given birth to their child Jacob (or Jake) later that year. However, a period of separation followed, and a final reconciliation in 1976. The intimate and scrutinising gaze that has informed Julia Sleeping, painted two years later, expresses not only Julia's presence back at the centre of Auerbach's life, but also an intense depth of emotion between the artist and his wife.