A new painting of a horse by Lucian Freud shows that his genius for portraiture is not applied only to humans.
Friday, 1st December 2006
Lucian Freud told me about a feral encounter with a large dog fox after dark in a side road near his London house. Instead of running off when it saw the painter, the fox stood its ground and gave him a hard look. Freud, taking this as a challenge, stared back. For a while fox and artist locked eyes. Eventually the wild beast rather slowly sauntered off. It sounded oddly like a meeting of equals: great artist and solitary animal.
Freud, he has said, tends to think of his clothed models as ‘animals dressed’. This works in reverse. When you look at Freud’s paintings of animals, you realise that he devotes more attention to their individual natures than most painters do to those of their human sitters. This is apparent in Mare Eating Hay (2006, Fig. 1), one of the most recently completed of the new works that are on show this month at Acquavella Galleries, New York.
It is tempting to conclude that Freud is one of the outstanding painters of animals in the western tradition, especially when contemplating a creature such as the whippet in Eli and David (2005-2006, Fig. 3), surely a dog to put beside those of Velázquez. But that formulation, with its suggestion of following a genre – animal painting – is not quite right.
It is rather that Freud has a conception of life that embraces the human and the animal as two aspects of the same thing – no doubt Velásquez did too. Some of his most memorable pictures are of people and animals – generally their owners – together: Girl with a White Dog (1950-51); Guy and Speck (1980-81). In the wonderful Double Portrait (1985-86) paws and hands, whippet legs and forearms, the dog’s and the woman’s noses are juxtaposed in an intimate, rhyming mesh. All of those paintings have a powerful sense of shared existence at least as close as his all-human couples, such as And the Bridegroom (1993).
When Freud was finishing Skewbald Mare (2004), the back end of the same horse as Mare Eating Hay, I showed him a photograph of Caravaggio’s Conversion of St Paul. He had never seen this painting, which is very close to what he was doing in angle and pose. He thought it ‘absolutely marvellous’, particularly liking the tangle of human and animal heads at the right. The picture, he thought, was of ‘a proper horse’. That perhaps is what he aims for himself: nothing consciously artistic but the real creature.
Animals have been important to Freud since boyhood. One of his earliest extant works (and to date the only sculpture in the canon), is Three-Legged Horse, carved in 1937, when he was 15. In later life, he enjoyed riding when possible. At school at Dartington he rode, and sometimes he slept in the stables (‘I loved that’). He has a strong sense of horse-nature. According to William Feaver, he prefers Géricault’s to Stubbs’s horses, ‘Which all look cameo, I don’t think Stubbs liked horses.’
Andrew Parker-Bowles reports in Jake Auerbach’s and Feaver’s film about Freud’s models (Portraits, 2004) that he is a good and brave horseman. It was in fact through this equestrian interest that Freud first met Parker-Bowles – who later sat for the majestic full-length picture The Brigadier (2003-2004) – when he was working in the stables of the Household Cavalry. Freud was slightly wistful about a horse he was warned not to go anywhere near: ‘It had bitten a trooper’s bollock off, and was more or less kept behind bars. I thought that was rather extreme. They kept it because it was such a magnificent mount’. Bad temperament in a horse, he believes, ‘if you give them continued kindness and good treatment becomes no more than a nervous tick’.
Such an animal might make a formidable subject, the equine equivalent to the professional criminal he painted in the 1960s (A Man and his Daughter, 1963-64). On the other hand, lack of personality or presence in an animal sitter destroys his impulse to work (as it does with a person). He has found two suitable subjects in the west London stables where he has been working on and off for the last few years, one of which posed for Grey Gelding 2003, the other for Skewbald Mare and Mare Eating Hay.
There was a third he considered, but somehow when he looked at her again he couldn’t find any interest in this mare. ‘It was like looking forward to meeting someone and then, when you do, thinking, why on earth did I want to see you? She had had a sort of amused expression when I looked at her sideways, but when I saw her again that had gone.’ This story brings out how important for him it is to paint an individual, not just any horse.
But practicality also comes into it, as it does with human sitters. A model, however appealing, who does not turn up regularly and punctually is no use to him. Similarly, an animal that cannot pose – and pose for the 100 hours or more a Freud painting may take – is not a possibility. The horses have generally been held by someone outside the picture. Pigs, for example, are a species that Freud finds appealing, but so far he has not found a way of arranging for them to sit (he toyed with the idea of having a few swine in his back garden, but concluded this would be impractical).
There were dead animals in his early work, and an anaesthetised rodent disconcertingly crops up, held by the naked man in Naked Man with Rat (1977-78). But apart from horses the non-humans in Freud’s pictures are generally dogs. He has ambivalent feelings about them, although he kept whippets for many years, because dogs, he believes, like habits and he does not. (Cats in contrast, he dislikes). Nonetheless, his late pet, a whippet named Pluto, posed for many notable images; and her remote relation Eli, owned by Freud’s assistant, the painter and photographer David Dawson, has done so more recently.
The point about dogs is that they will pose, sleeping contentedly while they are painted, especially if they are in the company of someone they trust. That is a practical reason for those paintings of people and animals posing together. If the whole person is not present in the picture, a part of them may be, as are David Dawson’s comforting feet in Eli (2002). Freud added a disembodied hand to the marvellous etching Pluto Aged 12 (2000), because he felt that the old, failing creature needed consolation.
Freud’s attitude to animals is of a piece with the rest of his art. Although he is sometimes criticised as harsh, stark and bleak in his vision, in fact he is deeply alive to the quirky uniqueness of everything – human, animal and inanimate – that he depicts.
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