Lucian Freud still rising


Lucian Freud is the most expensive painter of German origin. His latest record, hammered last November, happens to be twice that of Gerhard Richter.

Lucian FREUD (grandson of the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud) was born in 1922 in Berlin and died in July 2011 at the age of 88. Today he is one of the most sought-after painters of the 20th century. Having moved to London in 1934 with his family, he studied art in England. During trips abroad, he met a number of brilliant artists including Picasso and Giacometti in Paris in the 1940s and then Francis Bacon and Frank Auerbach. His contact with these masters persuaded him to abandon his linear approach and to indulge in expressive figurative painting focused on portraying the naked truth of his subjects.

Main themes

His portraits and nudes have made him one of the most prestigious and respected artists in the world, although his work has not always been well received. In 2001, he was commissioned to paint a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II to mark the monarch’s Golden Jubilee. The portrait garnered harsh criticism from the British press. Not only was the raw intensity of the portrait of the Queen shocking, but also the fact that Freud chose a small format (24×15 cm) when he normally worked in large formats.

Once he had found his style, Freud’s approach to painting acquired a certain regularity with an approach to portraying faces and bodies that always seems to reveal a raw, uncompromising intimacy, while inviting reflections on modesty, on the particularities of human bodies, their flaws, their scars, their over-abundance or even, more rarely, their emaciation. Through a focus on physical detail, Freud managed to approach the meta-physical reality of his subjects. He imposed a rigorous and demanding posing process for his sitters, with sessions lasting several hours, over periods sometimes lasting several months. British painter David Hockney has said he posed for hundreds of hours over months before Freud finished his portrait.

Freud’s work has enjoyed international recognition since the end of the 1980s, in part thanks to a major retrospective in 1987-1988 in four cities (Washington, Paris, London, Berlin). Represented by the American art dealer William Acquavella, his work was already well-known to major English, American and European collectors, and his paintings were already fetching close to half a million dollars at auction. In 1990, a portrait of a man with a cigarette, painted in the 1950s, generated Freud’s first 7-digit result (Man smoking, 1956/58). In 2007 his portrait of a certain Bruce Bernard fetched over 10 million dollars ($15.6 million) at Christie’s London. In 2008 his auction record crossed the $30 million threshold and in 2015 his powerful female nude, Benefits Supervisor Resting, fetched $56.1 million at Christie’s New York. Last year, a new threshold was breached with a result above $80 million dollars!

Lucian Freud: records at auction (copyright

An auction record at over 80 million

Lucian Freud’s latest auction record was hammered during the largest sale of art in auction history last November: Christie’s dispersal of the Paul G. Allen Collection, the first-ever art sale to take over one billion dollars ($1.6 billion). Along with Bill Gates, Paul G. Allen (1953-2018) founded Microsoft in 1975. Extremely well-advised, Allen acquired over 150 masterpieces from the Renaissance to Contemporary era by many of art history’s greatest artists including Monet, Klimt and Richter. His collection also contained a masterpiece by Lucian Freud, a pictorial monument that had remained in the personal collection of Freud’s dealer, James Kirkman, for fifteen years before being acquired by Paul G. Allen.

At the time of its creation, the canvas, Large Interior, W11 (after Watteau) (1981-1983), was the largest painting by Lucian Freud (measuring almost two meters) and the first to feature more than two models. A very powerful work, this domestic scene was featured on the catalog cover for Lucian Freud’s first major solo exhibition organized by Lawrence Gowing in 1982, although the work was not yet completed by Freud.

It was also the first work by Freud to dialogue directly with a ‘historical’ painting, Jean Antoine Watteau’s Pierrot (circa 1712; Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid). Transposing the gallant feast depicted by the French master to the interior of his studio, Freud replaced the distribution of Watteau’s commedia dell’arte by his personal muses, his lovers and his offspring (father of two legitimate children, the grandson of Sigmund Freud has apparently recognized the paternity of twelve others). Indeed, much of Freud’s work has an autobiographical content.

Large Interior, W11 (after Watteau) had already been auctioned in 1998 at Sotheby’s New York, where it fetched $5.8 million. But in November 2022, its price was revised to $86.2 million. In twenty-four years, after passing through an extremely prestigious American collection, the painting added the staggering sum of $80.4 million to its value. Freud’s previous records dated back to 2008 when his Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995) was acquired by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich at Christie’s for $33.6 million, and then two years later, in 2015, when his spectacular nude Benefits Supervisor Resting (1994) sold for $56.1 million.

Lucian Freud: turnover at auction since 2020 by geographic distribution (copyright

Among the world’s top-selling artists in 2022

In 2022, the sale for over $86 million of Large Interior, W11 (after Watteau) joined 31 other results including Girl with Closed Eyes (1986-1987), a portrait of Freud’s mistress and muse, writer Janey Longman, which had remained in the same collection since its purchase in the early 1990s and subsequently fetched $20.2 million at Christie’s London on 1 March 2022. Freud’s work therefore generated an exceptional total last year of $113.7 million giving the artist the 32nd place in our global ranking of artists by auction turnover, ahead of Gustav KLIMT who also set a new auction record ($104,585,000) in November with a canvas titled Birch Forest (1903) from the Paul Allen collection.

Lucian Freud’s art is so highly prized and expensive that some of his prints are worth over $100,000 or even $200,000. Fortunately, others are still more affordable at around $10,000 at auction… usually precious and rare prints produced in runs of around twenty copies.