Naked Girl Perched on a Chair is a powerful and concentrated portrait of a nude woman crouched intensely on a chair. Adopting almost the same pose of Van Gogh's Sorrow and embodied with the same mood of pain and sadness, her figure is set against the dark wooden floor boards of the studio contributing to the intensity of this extraordinarily portrait.
Painted in the evening, the set-up of this nocturnal painting has been made using artificial light. Freud normally works on several paintings at a time often in different rooms so he can devote his sole attention to each of them as well as keeping the different people in his life separate. The furniture and the people move around the large area of a rectangular room registering walls, windows, floors and doors, contributing to a greater sense of life and imprisonment within the pictures. Freud's night paintings are easily distinguished from his day paintings because their pools and clefts of shadow on the flesh are darker and larger and done with Prussian blue instead of the daytime ultramarine and Payne's gray.
The subject of this painting is Nicola Bateman, the wife of one of Freud's most memorable sitters, Leigh Bowery. Freud first met Bowery in 1988 after seeing his performance in the front window of the Anthony D'Offay Gallery and later asked him to sit for him. Until Bowery came on the scene, Freud had rarely worked from professional models. Not that Bowery was exactly a model. He was a poser, performer whose very personal appearances in a club involved incredible body transformations in costumes. Bowery first sat for Freud in 1990 and he continued working from him until his death in 1994. During the period he sat for the artist, he was modeling as often as five days a week for him. For Freud, instead of wearing exotic clothing and diva outfits, he bared himself.
Nicola Bateman was Leigh Bowery's seamstress, occasional collaborator in his performances and later his wife. It was in 1993 when Leigh Bowery started introducing friends to Freud who he thought would make good models, that the artist met and started working from Nicola Bateman and Sue Tilley, known as "Big Sue." Nicola Bateman sat for the first time for Freud in 1993 when she sat with Bowery for a double portrait Untitled, And the Bridegroom. After this painting they were married and seven months later Bowery died. During this period, while Bowery's health was declining, Bateman sat for Freud. He produced a small series of extraordinarily powerful and concentrated portraits. Bateman has said that sitting for Freud "gave me a breathing space of the situation" (Interview with Nicola Bateman in Jake Auerbach and William Feaver, Sitting for Freud, BBC Films, 2004) she was juggling jobs from 9 o'clock to 6pm when she would start sitting for Freud. This was the time she could "have a legitimate excuse" to stop and think. To work for Freud she also said was like going to university. These pictures were real physical challenges on the sitter. She sat for long periods of time in demanding positions which she would hold for hours at a time. The sadness, tiredness and pain she was going through was portrayed through Freud's powerful scrutiny of her body.
During the 1990s, images of Bowery and his friends filled Freud's canvasses. Referring to the use of a professional model when Bowery first came on the scene the artist said 'it becomes less autobiographical and, well, more ambitious, I suppose in a sense' (Lucian Freud cited in W. Freaver, Lucian Freud, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 2000, p.42). His paintings grew larger and more ambitious during this period; And the Bridgegroom from 1991-1992 was one of the largest paintings Freud had ever painted to that date. Freud took to enlarging paintings when necessary as they developed with strips added to the sides as in the case of Leigh Bowery Seated, or Naked Girl Perched on a Chair. 'Enlarging is like stepping back over the edge because you know the terrace in your absence has been built a little bit further. It's to do with a diabolical liberty rather than a terrible risk' (Ibid).
In painting Bateman in this crouched and huddled pose Freud no doubt was aware of the closeness of Bateman's pose to Van Gogh's famous drawing entitled Sorrow. Freud often knowingly quotes from other artists, using poses from famous paintings as a kind of reference. The fact that Bateman naturally adopted a pose that echoes that one Van Gogh used to express the sentiment of sorrow is, given the nature of the pain that she was experiencing at this time, both understandable and appropriate. In this way, though conforming completely to the objective nature of Freud's art, Naked Girl Perched on a Chair is nevertheless a powerful and moving portrait of the human physical expression of inner grief and torment.