January 6, 2004

I begin to feel a slight apprehension as to what this picture will look like. Will I look ugly? Will I look old? Facing up to the facts of life, such as aging and mortality, are precisely the point of Lucian Freud’s type of painting—of course, we applaud it in Rembrandt, but I am not sure how I feel about the policy when it is applied to myself. The sitter’s vanity is a wild card in the history of portraiture, often—in fact, almost always—a factor when the subject is paying for the result. But at the same time it can be a stumbling block, making for bad, dishonest images, or at the least something the painter has to overcome

Lucian Freud, “Man with a Blue Scarf” (2004).

Is it important that the picture should resemble the sitter? LF observes: “Likeness in a way isn’t the point, because whether or not a painting is a good likeness has nothing to do with its quality as a picture. For example, Rembrandt’s people all look alike in that they all have spiritual grandeur. You feel that he did not steer very close to the actual appearance of the sitter.”

On the other hand, LF is undeniably interested in the question. Often, he will mention that he thinks a certain picture is “like” or “very like.” After all, though the goal is to paint as good a picture as possible, his raw material is quirky individuality in the appearance of a certain person, animal or thing—in the case of the current painting, me.

When LF was painting Self Portrait, Reflection […] in 2002, his cleaning woman glanced through the studio door one day and saw it on the easel in the shadows, and told him: “I thought it was you.” He was pleased and amused by this incident, which recalls anecdotes in Pliny in which the unwary try to draw painted curtains, and doves attempt to peck the grain in a still life. An ancient aim of figurative art is to convince, even deceive, the viewer.”

—Martin Gayford,
Man with a Blue Scarf

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Martin Gayford

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