Lying in resplendent repose in the painter’s modest London studio, Lucian Freud’s Benefits Supervisor Resting is regarded as one of the most remarkable paintings of the human figure ever produced. Featuring Sue Tilley, a local government worker from London and one of the artists’ most celebrated sitters, this extraordinary portrait demonstrates Freud’s mastery of the painterly medium as he records the subtle nuances of Tilley’s ample figure with astute dexterity. Painted during a nine month period in 1994, this remarkably candid portrait is a stunning essay on Freud’s patient painterly practice, in which he undertakes an exhaustive examination of the human form and renders every curve, fold, and contour of Tilley’s body with a deeply evocative force. This painting is a triumph of the human spirit, showcasing Freud’s love of the human body. The sitter, Sue Tilley, is calm and confident, relaxed and comfortable in her own skin. She is very much in control, taking on the artist and the viewer. A contemporary take on the Odalisque and the fertility goddess, with her head flung back, she exudes an intriguing ambiguity, implying ecstasy, defiance and the deep exhale of peacefulness. Featured on the cover of the definitive monograph about the artist, Benefits Supervisor Resting, is one of the artist’s outstanding paintings. Freud’s portraits of Big Sue, as she was affectionately known, have been recognized as being “major contributions to the sum of Western painting of the nude” and “may even put the final stop to the classical tradition” (B. Bernard, quoted by P. Hoban, Lucian Freud: Eyes Wide Open, Boston, 2014, p. 126).
In the artist’s sparse studio, Sue Tilley’s ample body covers the threadbare sofa on which she lies. With her arms resting on the back and side of the sofa, and her legs crooked at a ninety degree angle, she opens herself up to an exterior gaze. Her head is tilted back rendering her oblivious to our presence. In the soft light Tilley’s body becomes a rolling landscape comprised of subtle skin tones cast amongst a labyrinth of shadows; a patchwork of colors, which span the chromatic spectrum ranging from a deep red that demarcates the silhouette of her feet to pale—almost diaphanous—pinks, mauves and muted creams that convey the expanse of her breasts. The subtle changes in Tilley’s skin tone are picked up by Freud’s brush as he explores every inch of her body with a deftness and delicacy that is the result of many hours studying the surface of his subject’s skin. While the broad expanse of Tilley’s ample features are what first capture the attention, Freud is just as fascinated by the idiosyncratic blemishes that occur in places across her body. As such, he lavishes as much attention on the individualities of her skin as he does on the voluptuous folds of flesh that make up her undulating stomach.
Freud was introduced to Sue Tilley through another of his sitters, the nightclub host and performance artist Leigh Bowery. Bowery was another of the artist’s most recognizable subjects and featured in a number of Freud’s painting during a four year period beginning in 1990. Bowery was already friends with Tilley and suggested to Freud that the two meet as she might be an interesting sitter for him. Tilley later recalled her first encounter with the artist. “Leigh was running a club in Piccadilly somewhere and I was on the door, so he made Lucian come. That was hilarious, because there were loads of freaks and then Lucian. He remarked that my lipstick was the wrong color, that it didn’t suit me at all because there was too much blue in there. Then about six months later, he decided to invite me to lunch at the River Café with…Angus Cook who also sat for him. He [Freud] just entertained me so much by telling me ridiculous stories, ridiculous jokes, and I was laughing so much…He didn’t really say, ‘So you want to sit?’ But he said to Leigh, ‘Phone her up and say I want to use her.’ So Leigh came to call for me and we went together” (S. Tilley in an unpublished interview with P. Ordovas, Christie’s, April 2008).
The process of sitting for Freud was a long and complex one. Most of his sittings would take place in the evening and last well into the night. Sue Tilley recalled the length of time it took to complete one of his works. “Every Saturday and Sunday, and then usually [he] would bribe me to take a couple of days off work in the week…and that was for nine months…
[I had] to be there at half past seven. Depending on the time of year, because it all depends on the light and things like that, so in the winter I could get there a little bit later and then usually stay until about half past three” (S. Tilley, ibid). Because of the length of time each sitting took, Freud was careful to arrive at a pose that was both visually interesting and practical—something that his sitters could sustain for the many hours they would spend together in the studio. “It’s difficult to say how a pose comes about with my portrait,” he admitted. “It just happens. We come to an agreement. I usually ask them to hold a pose based on something I see that seems new or odd to me. It’s usually not what they think I’m looking at. I suppose you might say we exploit each other. I am allowed to make a painting based on their presence in my studio, and they make that presence known in many different ways…. You cannot make a person stand or sit exactly as you want or as you think you want. They will do it their own way, even if it is subtle. They are communicating with their body. I look for those things I haven’t seen before; what he did with the arm or that leg, trying to identify why it is different. Sometimes it takes a very long time to see it, but despite my slowness I will eventually see it” (Ibid., p. 209-213).
Benefits Supervisor Resting is the second in a series of four paintings featuring Sue Tilley, which Freud undertook over a three year period beginning in 1993. The first painting, entitled Evening in the Studio, features Tilley lying naked on the bare floorboards of Freud’s studio. Behind her is seated another model, Nicola Bateman, and lying comfortably on the austere metal bed is the artist’s whippet, Pluto. Originally, the composition was also said to have included Leigh Bowery and Cerith Wyn-Evans, another member of Freud’s cadre of sitters. The present work, Benefits Supervisor Resting, painted in 1994, is the second painting, which was followed a year later by Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (which was sold by Christie’s in New York in 2008 for $33.6 million, making it—at the time—the most expensive painting by a living artist ever to be sold at auction). The final painting is a 1996 elongated canvas called Sleeping by the Lion Carpet in which Tilley slumbers in a leather chair in front of richly decorated carpet. All four paintings have become some of the most celebrated in Freud’s oeuvre and were recently selected for the 2012 critically acclaimed retrospective of the artist’s portraits organized by London’s National Portrait Gallery and which later travelled to the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas.
The sheer honesty and authenticity of Freud’s portraiture, the reality with which he imbues every brushstroke, is what makes his work stand out in the history of portraiture. Traditionally, this genre of art has been used to flatter the rich and powerful (those who were able to commission such portraits), Freud is one of the few artists who has the power to convey the true essence of the person who is sitting for him. The stark candor of his nudes has the capacity to shock, but for Freud this is not his avowed intention, “I think the desire to shock has a self-conscious banality about it sometimes. I always thought truth-telling was more exciting” (L. Freud, quoted by S. Smee, “A Late-Night Conversation with Lucian Fraud,” in B. Bernard, Freud at Work, New York, 2006, p. 34). He would later proclaim, “I never put anything into a picture that I don’t see when I’m painting a subject. However, I’m not trying to make a copy of a person. I’m trying to relay something of who they are, a physical and emotional presence. I want the paint to work as flesh does. If you don’t over-direct your sitters and you focus on their physical presence, interesting things often happen. You find that you capture something about them that neither of you knew” (L. Freud, interviewed by M. Auping, “Lucian Freud in Conversation with Michael Auping,” in S. Howgate, Lucian Freud: Portraits, exh. cat., National Portrait Gallery, London, 2012, pp. 208-209). This desire to capture the naked “truthfulness” of his sitter is what marks out paintings such as Benefits Supervisor Resting as ground-breaking examples of their genre. Along with the other great portraitists such as Rembrandt, Freud is one of the most perceptive painters of the human figure and his ability to capture the essence of person in paint marks him out as one of the greatest protagonists of his kind. “The essence of his genius in the perception of human beings is felt most keenly when he has asked one person who interests him, both in looks and character, to submit to his scrutiny and help him realize their truest possible image in paint” (B. Bernard, “Thinking About Lucian Freud,” in B. Bernard & D. Birdsall (eds.), Lucian Freud, New York, 1996, p. 12).
Dating back more than 25,000 years to the paleolithic Venus of Willendorf, the diminutive limestone statuette of the voluptuous female form, the naked female has been one of the mainstays of art history. Kenneth Clarke, noted scholar and former director of the National Gallery in London, claimed in a series of 1953 lectures that, “In the greatest age of painting, the nude inspired the greatest works” (K. Clark, The Nude. A Study in Ideal Form, Princeton, 1984, p. 3). In his seminal essay on the history of the nude within art, Clark argues that the pervading popularity of the female figure within the context of art history is due to two things. Firstly, there is the aesthetic—the sheer beauty of the female form, particularly for the male gaze, and secondly, there is the academic tradition in which the ability to draw the human figure was regarded as the minimum requirement for all artists. However, art history has devised a distinction between the naked and nude. “To be naked,” Clark surmises, “is to be deprived of our clothes, and the word implies some embarrassment most of us feel in that condition. The word ‘nude,’ on the other hand, carries, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone” (Ibid.). In the seventeenth century, despite the pervading prudish sensitivities, Velásquez was able to exquisitely portray the sensuous curves of the reclining female figure in The Toilet of Venus (‘Rokeby’ Venus), 1647-51 (National Gallery, London). However, the romanticized nature of Velásquez’s female nude, with its slender silhouette and porcelain-like skin, stood in stark contrast to the voluptuous flesh painted by Peter Paul Rubens with his more ‘naturalistic’ portrayal of the female figure in such acknowledged masterpieces such as The Three Graces, 1639 (Museo del Prado, Madrid).
It is within this historical context that Benefits Supervisor Resting exists, straddling two of the greatest traditions in art history, as it can claim to be, in Clark’s sense, both ‘naked’ and ‘nude’. The reclining figure of Sue Tilley has clear references to the nudes of the classic tradition as espoused by the likes of Titian, Rubens, Velásquez and even Giovanni Bellini, who’s Naked Young Woman in Front of the Mirror, circa 1515 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) Freud admitted was his favorite female nude. Yet, the thoroughly contemporary way in which Freud paints Tilley also parallels the more modern portrayals of the female figure by nineteenth century painters such as Édouard Manet, Berthe Morisot and Henri de Toulouse- Lautrec. Clark maintained the importance of the female form, even in the modern age, “In our own century, when we have shaken off one by one those inheritances of Greece which were revived at the Renaissance, discarded the antique armor, forgotten the subjects of mythology, and disputed the doctrine of imitation, the nude alone has survived. It may have suffered some curious transformations, but it remains our chief link with the classic disciplines. When we wish to prove to the Philistine that our great revolutionaries are really respectable artists in the tradition of European painting, we point to their drawings of nudes” (K. Clark, The Nude. A Study in Ideal Form, Princeton, 1984, p. 3).
Painted in 1994, Benefits Supervisor Resting was executed at a particularly important time in Freud’s career when, at seventy-two years old, his series of gargantuan nudes came to define his career. They began in 1988 when he spotted Leigh Bowery at the Antony d’Offay Gallery. Bowery, who regularly appeared on high heels, wearing latex body stockings and masks, fascinated him. “I found him perfectly beautiful,” Freud said when Bowery came to his studio (L. Freud, quoted by J. Jones, “Portrait of the Week: Leigh Bowery Bowery (Seated), 1990, Lucian Freud,” The Guardian, November 18, 2000, London, http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2000/nov/18/art [accessed March 23, 2015]). Leigh Bowery (Seated), 1990 was the first in this series of magnificent nude portraits, which would soon include Bowery’s friend Sue Tilley. This period also coincided with the artist signing with dealer William Acquavella, who would do much to help reinforce Freud’s reputation as one of the greatest painters of his generation. It was Acquavella who saw the true potential of these new paintings, “When William walked into the studio, all the Leigh Bowery paintings were there; he was knocked out by them” Freud recalled. “You’d think a rather uptown, established gallerist would be slightly put off, but not a bit of it. He just thought these were remarkable paintings” (L. Freud, quoted by T. Vanderbilt, “The Master and the Gallerist,” Wall Street Journal Magazine, March 24, 2011, www.wsj.com [accessed March 23, 2015]). With Acquavella’s unstinting support, Freud’s paintings enjoyed a renaissance, and this renewed sense of vigor can be seen right across the epic painterly surface of these monumental nudes.
A passionate observer of reality, Freud had the rare gift of being able to translate the life of his sitters into the medium of paint. His paintings of Sue Tilley are regarded as being among the most remarkable portrayals of the human figure ever to have been undertaken. His brushwork exhibits none of the flamboyant nonchalance of the Old Masters, instead he offers a precise and analytical dissection of the phenomena of reality made through careful craft, painstaking observation and deliberative action. Using brushes that almost comb the paint rather than absorb it and leaving the brushed material quality of the oil starkly visible on the surface, Freud builds his work slowly across the surface like a patchwork map of reality. This notion of truth lies at the heart of Freud’s paintings as despite his notable ancestry (his grandfather was Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis) Freud professed that his paintings were not meant to provide any particular psychological insight into his sitters, just an honest reflection of what he saw before him. “My work is purely autobiographical,” Freud admitted, “it is about myself and my surroundings. I work from people that interest me and that I care about, in rooms that I know… When I look at a body it gives me a choice of what to put in a painting, what will suit me and what won’t. There is a distinction between fact and truth. Truth has an element of revelation about it. If something is true, it does more than strike one as merely being so” (L. Freud, as quoted by S. Figura, Lucian Freud: The Painter’s Etchings, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2007). In works such as Benefits Supervisor Resting, Freud has taken this ‘revelation of truth’ to its ultimate conclusion, resulting in a painting that becomes the definitive portrayal of the human body, as Bruce Bernard concludes “…he must be one of the greatest portrayers of the individual human being in European Art—and therefore in the whole of painting” (B. Bernard, “Thinking About Lucian Freud,” in B. Bernard & D. Birdsall (eds.), Lucian Freud, New York, 1996, p. 7).