Reflection of imperfection: Lucian Freud redefines the self-portrait

Lucian Freud’s Reflection (Self-Portrait) – Gandalf’s Gallery via Flickr

Parker’s crossed legs and unblemished skin. Dixon’s luscious hair and relaxed shoulders. Cox’s content grin and professional poise. Down the hall from our beloved sweater hang eight flattering portraits of Haverford’s preceding headmasters to Dr. Nagl. They highlight each man’s character and passion through facial expressions and still-life objects. Each portrait casts the man in his best light.

  Portrait savant Lucian Freud took a completely different route in 1985—and his entire career—with his piece, Reflection (Self-Portrait). Thirty-five years later, Freud’s unconventional method could be more relevant than ever. Characterized by harsh color contrasts and attention to unattractive detail, Freud redefines the typical portrait, favoring reality over staged work. 

  “The painter must give a completely free rein to any feeling or sensations he may have and reject nothing to which he is naturally drawn,” Freud wrote in his autobiography. 

“The longer you look at an object, the more abstract it becomes, and, ironically, the more real.” 

Lucian freud

  While many painters’ backgrounds influenced their work, Freud’s past defined his work. 

  Grandson of Sigmund Freud—neurologist and creator of psychoanalysis—the need for a complete understanding of human emotion ran in the family. Oftentimes, Sigmund would leave Vienna, Austria, to visit Lucian’s family in Berlin. He gifted the young Lucian books, comic strips, and most importantly, paintings. 

  Quickly, Lucian Freud became an avid painter. “It is the only point of getting up every morning: to paint, to make something good, to make something even better than before, not to give up, to compete, to be ambitious,” he wrote. 

  But Freud did not take a conventional approach to painting. He became obsessed with the human body and portraits. Instead of focusing on the body’s beauty, he brought out the truth. Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, his most profitable piece of 33.6 million dollars, depicted an overweight woman paying special attention to her burdened face and amble body. 

Exhibition in Frankfurt, Germany for Lucian Freud’s Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, 2000 – Photoarchiv Krizanovic via Wikimedia Commons

  Regarding his strategy on displaying real human emotion, he said, “The longer you look at an object, the more abstract it becomes, and, ironically, the more real.” 

  Up close, Reflection is made of large brush strokes. One would think large brush strokes take away Freud’s ability to capture small details, but this is not the case; it is purposeful. Freud uses large marks to create hard edges, ultimately casting a face that appears to have aged poorly. 

  Rather than fading colors into a gradient, he uses chunky, blocked strokes that make his wrinkles more prominent. An escapee of Hitler’s Nazi regime, Freud’s face reflects a difficult life. It follows the same pattern as his previous work, focusing on the hard truth.

A portrait can be flattering, or it can be real; no man is as perfect as their pose.

  Nearing the end of his painting career Freud said, “Now the very least I can do is to paint myself naked.” 

  Naked can be interpreted in one of two ways: nude, or revealing. While many of his portraits use the former—he said, “When I’m painting people in clothes I’m always thinking very much of naked people”—Freud uses the latter in Reflection. He reveals himself through the color palette. 

  Since the background is a cool, dull brown, Freud’s aging upper body appears directly in contrast. But just beneath his face is a shadow, not coincidentally the same color as the background. 

  His olive skin tone darks contrast the yellow tinted brights, creating shadows within individual skin folds and furthering the wrinkle and old age premise. 

  A handful of factors play into the title Reflection. Because of the contrast between contoured face and monochrome background, Freud appears closer to the viewer, hinting at the out-of-body experience we all have when lost in thought. His eyes, notably disproportionate and asymmetrical, exist in non-parallel gazes, displaying both Freud’s imperfection as a man, but also his moment of self-reflection that the title insinuates.  

In an age of mindless entertainment, ravaging disease, and overwhelming stress, Freud’s style remains pertinent. If the portraits of Haverford’s venerated men were revisited, this time revealing harsh reality over legacy, what would each generation have to say?

  A portrait can be flattering, or it can be real; no man is as perfect as their pose. Freud never paints from a picture, and even allows his subject to move around; he painted his self-portrait in the mirror. Where many tell satisfactory and simple stories through their portraits and self-portraits, Lucian Freud aims to unsettle—he tells the truth.

“It’s purely autobiographical,” he said.

Author: Tyler Zimmer '21

Editor-in-Chief Tyler Zimmer '21 has written for each section of The Index since 2018. He previously served as Managing Editor and Arts Editor. In addition to journalism, Tyler plays baseball and golf, and he is often found working in the art studio.