It was during the 1940s that Lucien Freud began to consolidate his art. His early experiments and subject matter gradually gained a consistency and a character that became uniquely his own. Here, in Rose and Sweet Pea, painted circa 1947, although a strong de Chirico influence remains which recalls Freud's interest in surreal assemblages, there is an eerie existentialism at play in this work. It has been well noted that from the middle of that decade, the human figure came increasingly to dominate Freud's oeuvre, and although there is no such person within Rose and Sweet Pea, the upright rose has the poise of a human figure. It seems to defy gravity to the same extent that it denies its own shadow. Just as the rose is lent a strange, human quality, the painting gains a strange, dream-like quality.
The sparse composition of Rose and Sweet Pea makes this a work more reminiscent of Old Masters than of the Surrealists. Although there is not the same sensuality as can be found in Crivelli's work, the composition forces the viewer almost to read the painting. There is something medieval about the didactic presentation. This appears almost botanical, save for the disjointed juxtaposition of pea and rose. Each plant has a symbolic value, the red rose for love, and the sweet pea for pleasure, although this is usually more linked to the flower than to the plant. Indeed, this last discrepancy is more revealing of Freud's intentions - the peas are being disrobed, bursting sensuously from their pod, making this a simple yet beguiling image that celebrates both natural beauty and sensual love.
Rose and Sweet Pea was formerly in the collection of James and Tania Stern, great bastions of the British literary scene who oversaw a translation of the letters of Sigmund Freud - the grandfather of the artist.