Painted in 1954, Head of a Child is an intimate portrait of the artist's daughter that dates from the pivotal moment of transition in Freud's painting style. It was in the mid-1950s that Freud began to experiment with more open brushwork, with harder brushes, eschewing the precision that had marked much of his earlier work. In Head of a Child, the paint has still been applied with the fine sable brush, giving the oil a feathered appearance which, combined with light tones, appears reminiscent of Old Master works executed in tempera. Every hair appears painstakingly executed with exceptional fineness. However, this very precision was beginning to vex Freud, who has said of the period that his "eyes were completely going mad, sitting down and not being able to move. Small brushes, fine canvas. Sitting down used to drive me more and more agitated. I felt I wanted to free myself from this way of working." (L. Freud, 1954, in: W. Feaver, 'Lucian Freud: Life into Art', in: W. Feaver (ed.), Lucian Freud, exh. cat., London 2002, pp. 27-28.) Thus in his daughter's face, the brushwork appears more textured, more painterly, than in his previous work. He has used the same light, feathery paint to build up the facial tones through a patchwork of assorted colours, presaging the chunky strokes of his later work, building up the flesh and skin in a new way.
In 1948, Freud had married Kitty Garman, the daughter of the sculptor Sir Jacop Epstein, and had two daughters with her. This painting is a portrait of one of his daughters by her, both of whom have appeared in their father's work throughout their lives. However, more than in most subsequent depictions, his daughter is presented here with features recalling her mother. By the time Head of a Child was painted, Freud had married Lady Caroline Blackwood. However, works from this period, such as Hotel Bedroom, depicting his then wife, have been said to be already indicative of the marriage's imminent failure. It is therefore all the more interesting to see that not only are his ex-wife's features recalled in the portrait of his daughter, but also the style in which he has presented her, with the same huge eyes, seems to refer to his striking paintings of Kitty, not least the Tate Gallery's Girl with a White Dog of 1951-52. Despite the similarities, Freud has managed to fill his daughter's portrait with her own unique character. There is none of the poise common to the pictures of Kitty, but instead a wide-eyed, open-mouthed child caught as though in an instant looking at her father. Freud has captured an individual in a private setting, an intimate situation.
The tight composition itself makes his daughter appear almost to be bursting into the viewer's world, a reflection of their closeness. This painting is therefore intimate not only in its depiction of the sitter's character, but also in Freud's own emotional attachment to the sitter. In this sense, it fulfills the criteria of Freud's other portraits, in which he aims to capture his sitters, not merely to represent them, while also demonstrating his own intense personal investment in his art. The reason Freud does not accept commissions, does not use professional models, is because the emotional bond is compromised. He paints only those whom he feels like painting. In 1954 he wrote, "Painters who use life itself as their subject-matter, working with the object in front of them, or constantly in mind, do so in order to translate life into art almost literally, as it were... The painter makes real to others his innermost feelings about all that he cares for." (L. Freud, 1954, in: ibid, pp. 26-27.)