Lucian Freud by Lucian Freud

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    Lucian Freud,    by Lucian Freud,    1963,    NPG 5205,    © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images
One of the most celebrated portrait artists of his generation.
Lucian Freud
by Lucian Freud
oil on canvas, 1963
12 in. x 9 7/8 in. (305 mm x 251 mm)
NPG 5205
© The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images
On display in Room 26 on Floor 2 at the National Portrait Gallery

Lucian Freud (1922–2011) was one of the most important and influential artists of his generation. He was also one of the most celebrated portrait artists. 

Freud mainly made portraits of those closest to him: friends, family and lovers, as well as himself. He had a life-long interest in the human face and body and specialised in figurative art. He became particularly known for his intensely observed and realistic ‘naked portraits’.

Analysing the portrait

  • View larger image
    Lucian Freud,    by Lucian Freud,    1963,    NPG 5205,    © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images
Lucian Freud, by Lucian Freud, 1963

Look carefully at the portrait. Take your time – look at it for at least a whole minute. What can you see?

    • Freud focusses on his face. It is shown close-up and tightly cropped, taking up most of the composition. 
    • He is squinting and, although we can’t really see his eyes, we feel that his Gaze The relationship of looking between sitter, artist and viewer. is intense and direct.
    • His hair is messy, and his shoulders are bare. This makes the portrait seem informal and Intimate Having a close and friendly relationship. , as if we are seeing Freud in a private moment. 
    • The self-portrait was painted using oil paint on canvas. The paint has a rich, buttery texture and we can see its glossy shine. 
    • Freud hasn’t painted his features in detail. Straight, downwards vertical brushstrokes suggest his nose and his cheek. Curved brushstrokes show the Contours The outer edges of something; the outline of its shape or form. of his brow and cheekbones, and the strands of his messy hair.
    • He used Hog hair The coarse hairs on the back and neck of a pig, used for making paint brushes. paintbrushes, which have stiff bristles that hold lots of paint. This allowed him to build an Impasto A painting technique where the paint is applied so thickly that it stands out from the surface. surface and suggest the fleshy softness of his face. It is as if he has used the paint to sculpt his face. 
    • The brushstrokes are expressive and loose. This gives the impression that Freud painted the self-portrait quickly, making it – and him – look animated and full of life. 
    • If you zoom in on the portrait, the brushstrokes look messy and make the portrait seem Abstract Art that doesn't show people, animals or objects as they really are, but uses shapes, colours and marks to represent them. . But zoom back out and they all come together to create a solid face and head that look three-dimensional. 
    • Freud mainly used a palette of warm creams and browns. At first, this looks limited but if you look closely, you will see subtle shades of pink, Ochre A type of red or yellow earth used in some paints and dyes. , grey and greenish brown.
    • His face is lit from the front left. This could be natural light from a window, but it is bright enough to create strongly contrasting light and shade on his face.
    • Dabs of pale, creamy pink highlight his forehead, nose, right cheek, right ear, and chin.
    • Mid and darker Tone A shade of a colour. of grey, red ochre and Umber A dark brown or yellow-brown colour used in paints. are used for the Contours The outer edges of something; the outline of its shape or form. and shading of his face. This use of light and dark tones makes his head appear three-dimensional. 
    • His face, with its pale dabs of paint and textured mass of lively brush marks stands out dramatically against the plain, dark, flat background. 
The painter makes real to others the innermost feelings about all that he cares for. A secret becomes known to everyone who views the picture ...
Lucian Freud, 1954

 Who was Lucian Freud?

  • Lucian Freud was born in Berlin, Germany, into an artistic Jewish family.
  • Freud and his family moved to London, England, in 1933 to escape the Persecution The act of treating somebody in a cruel and unfair way, especially because of their race, religion, political beliefs, or identity. of Jewish people in Nazi Belonging to or connected with the National Socialist Party, which controlled Germany from 1933 to 1945. Germany.
  • Freud began making art at an early age and spent his teens drawing obsessively. Although he is best known as a painter, drawing remained an essential part of his artistic practice throughout his life.
  • Portraiture became the focus of Freud’s work. He mainly made portraits of people he knew well. Self-portraits allowed him to experiment and develop his technique as a painter.
  • The experience of posing for a portrait by Freud was not easy. His painting practice has often been described as ‘obsessive and intense’ and his models could be required to pose for him for many hours, over weeks, months or even years.
  • In the mid-1960s, Freud began to paint nudes, or ‘naked portraits’, as he called them, often on a very large scale. Rather than showing idealised bodies, his naked portraits are true to life. They have been described as ‘unflattering’ and a ‘frank scrutiny of the human form’.
  • Freud’s work is also known for reflecting the relationship between the artist and sitter, which is often intense and sometimes uncomfortable. He believed his presence was in every one of his paintings, stating ‘all my work is autobiography’. 
  • By the late 1980s, Freud had become an internationally recognised artist.
  • His later portraits include many famous people such as Queen Elizabeth II. 

Why is this portrait significant?

  • Freud’s self-portraits span 60 years. He painted his first in 1943 and his last in the early 2000s. Their style changed a great deal over this time. He always found painting self-portraits challenging.
  • This is the last of three self-portraits painted one after the other in 1963.  It is an example of how, by this time, Freud’s style had developed from being very detailed to more broadly painted and expressive.
  • The following year, Freud caused a scandal when he set his students at Norwich College of Art an assignment to paint their own naked self-portrait; he saw the naked self as ‘the most revealing, telling and believable object.’ 


  1. What do you think Freud is saying about himself in this self-portrait? Why do you think that?
  1. His face has been described as ‘mask-like’. Do you agree? Why?
  1. Why do you think Freud chose self-portraiture as a focus for practising and developing new techniques?