In 1995 the art critic David Sylvester caused a stir by suggesting in the Guardian that Lucian Freud – by then 73 and widely acknowledged as a major figurative British artist – was “not a real painter”. Freud, Sylvester wrote, lacked natural talent but had achieved his success through “a huge effort of will applied to the realisation of a highly personal and searching vision of the world”. Was Sylvester right? It’s pretty obvious from the clenched distortions of Freud’s apprentice portraits that his innate weaknesses contributed as much as his strengths to the development of a distinctive approach. Nor was he, in the course of a 70-year career, ever much interested in composition, disliking the element of stagecraft involved. And yet somehow the result of a lifetime of ferocious application was a style that is as singular as that of Rembrandt or Frans Hals.
William Feaver, a friend and collaborator of Freud’s for 30 years, gives us a Lucian who always resisted categorisation. The grandson of Sigmund and a Berlin-born refugee to Britain from Hitler’s Germany who spoke all his life with a foreign intonation, Freud became a key if reluctant member in the 1940s of the group of painters known as the School of London. The first volume of this capacious double-decker of a biography covered Freud’s two brief marriages; the shift away from his early enamelled surfaces to the loose fleshliness of his mature work; the many distractions – “gambling, betting and amorous pursuits” – of the 1960s. The second begins as he’s hitting middle age, with just over 40 years of studio life ahead of him.
Having enjoyed almost unrivalled daily access to Freud, Feaver records with little editorial filtering the egotism, the sexual prowling and the remorseless urge to produce of these later years, allowing Freud to reveal himself in his own words on every page. It’s a mesmerising picture of a paintaholic who was incorrigibly on the make. Freud’s search for new young female models was, Feaver shows, also a search for fresh sexual partners. Since he could have as many as nine canvases on the go at any one time, the women came and went in rotation.
Freud’s search for new young female models was also a search for fresh sexual partners – women came and went in rotation
Art wasn’t the only thing being created: this volume brings the total of acknowledged Freud offspring, with six women, to 14. Most of Freud’s children eventually agreed to sit for him, realising that he was uninterested in a relationship outside the studio (“It’s nice,” Freud said, “when you breed your own models”). In this he was being true to his credo that “the one thing more important than the person in the painting is the picture”. Freud aimed in all things for “greater ruthlessness”, painting as he lived, on his own terms. He was never so much School of London, as School of Lucian.
If there is a proper reckoning to be made of Freud’s sexual and emotional exploitativeness, Feaver isn’t the biographer to do it. The fallout of Freud’s peculiar psychology – the grooming of his youthful models, the sidelined children and the vindictiveness he sometimes showed towards his friends, including Francis Bacon – is noted in passing, but not explored. Feaver isn’t about to put Freud on the couch. Where he really excels is as a critic, nudging us away from Sylvester’s view of Freud as an idiot savant, a wode-covered savage strange to all artifice, to position him squarely in a sophisticated European painterly tradition.
At their very best, the pictures Freud produced in the last half of his life bring to mind Dryden’s idea of fancy “moving the Sleeping Images of Things towards the Light”. Many of them are naked figures asleep or reclining on a bed in the artist’s studio, from the tense fusion of flesh and quilt in Night Portrait (1978) to the postcoital swoon of And the Bridegroom (2001). Against the grimy colours Freud preferred (he mixed charcoal dust into them to give them a “Londony” tinge), the lead-infused, and potentially lethal, Cremnitz white he reserved for painting human skin makes the bodies shine with a deathly glow. How alive they are, and how mortal, on their smeared sheets. As Freud once said of Rembrandt’s A Woman in Bed: “You can smell the bed.”
Freud’s irreverent engagement with a realist tradition lends a frisson to his monumental portraits of the Australian drag artist Leigh Bowery. His Naked Man, Back View (1991-2) of Bowery’s billowing torso is, Feaver notes, indebted to Cézanne’s Le Nègre Scipion, but it surely also owes something – a sly nod to his model’s sexual ambiguity here – to the voluptuousness of Ingres’s La Grande Baigneuse. Freud was clever at hiding his sources. Consider his apparently haphazard reworking of Watteau’s Pierrot Content as Large Interior, W11 (After Watteau) (1981-3), in which a collection of Freud’s intimates is assembled in a rackety allegory of the painter’s life. The nearly two-metre-square painting is set in his Holland Park studio with its stained walls and splintered floorboards (a Freud without floorboards is like a Canaletto without canals). In Freud’s version of Watteau’s picture Pierrot is played by the sullen teenage son of his ex-lover Suzy Boyt, who sits warily on the lad’s right. Freud’s daughter Bella strums a mandolin while tolerating the hand of Dad’s current girlfriend, the painter Celia Paul, on her knee. A little girl – who was to have been Freud’s grandchild by another daughter, Annie, except that they fell out – sprawls balefully at their feet.
Feaver isn’t about to put Freud on the couch – where he really excels is as a critic
The picture seethes with suppressed feeling: jealousy, resignation, feigned nonchalance. The whole thing shows that even Freud’s large interiors are still portraits, the human body firmly central – in the case of this painting, quite literally so. Watteau may be the official inspiration, but the real secret to its arrangement is Titian’s Diana and Callisto, which Freud – Feaver tells us – considered the most beautiful picture in the world. He was obsessed with the “amazing deep navel” of the reclining Diana in Titian’s composition and when he restaged the Watteau he did it on Titian’s giant scale, putting that navel in the middle. It becomes the hole in the body of the mandolin that Bella clutches against her stomach. This detail anchors the entire picture: a virtuoso display of contrasting states of mind that nevertheless have an emphatic physical axis.
Though Freud enjoyed the perks of fame, hobnobbing with peers and rock stars and supermodels, he never lost his quixotic streak. When Jerry Hall skipped sittings for a large nude of her breastfeeding her son, Freud simply painted out her head and replaced it with that of his male assistant. The new millennium saw him relishing his role as the crabby old man of art, unveiling a controversially bleak picture of the Queen and being chased for a portrait by Madonna (he turned her down) while gearing up for his 2002 Tate Britain retrospective. And yet he had no discernible late style, only what Feaver describes as a “habitual persistence’ in hunting down the quiddities of things on his relentless quest to improve. After several sittings, Freud recalled the 11th Duke of Devonshire for another round because he felt he’d botched the duke’s silk shirt. “Rembrandt would have done it,” he said, “and I’m damn well going to do it too.”
Feaver’s vastly detailed biography is the ideal companion to Freud’s work. It resembles nothing so much as a large Freud canvas: hypnotic, occasionally reiterative, quirkily dark in places, proceeding by a process of obsessive accretion. Lucian Freud, not a real painter? On this evidence he was real enough.
• The Lives of Lucian Freud: Fame, 1968-2011 is published by Bloomsbury (£35). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.