Unlocking The Vault: Lucien Freud, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

"Unlocking the Vault" is an ongoing investigation by contributor, John Pyper, of artworks deep within museums' permanent collections.

Lucien Freud, Susie, 1988
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Lucien Freud (English, 1922-2011) | Susie, 1988, Oil on canvas, Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

If you've never encountered Freud's painting of his daughter Susie Boyt, it's not a large work. There only hint that it's small are the brush strokes in the background, especially the ones that shape the right side of her head. As with most of Freud's more successful paintings, they depict a fragile human in a meaty swarm of impasto. Flesh is low contrast in Freud's eyes but is still made from diffuse contrasting shades. The sitter's still face and shoulders anchor the painting, subtly receding from face to chest. Her hair on the other hand, is a winding coil of brush strokes and angular motion that optically blend, rippling off the frame. There is no trauma in that her eyes are uneven. Irregular but balanced, she's just as beautiful for it.

Susie came to the MFA through the generosity of Melvin Blake and Frank Purnell, a couple who collected realist paintings. After seeing Antionio López García's work at Staempfli gallery, they sought out numerous works from Spanish artists working in realism. These works were out of fashion in New York at the time, but the two collectors followed their instincts and amassed an excellent collection that was larger than the sum of its parts.

In one way, both collector and painter resemble each other: both were diligent workers with a singular viewpoint. Freud sometimes scheduled his sitters for weeks, unearthing significant insights from their faces. Digging through their visual information, finding the ugly and the beauty of each person, he reported on the fragmented reality of his sitter, presenting them as a consistent whole. His realism wasn't photographic, but took a form that ignored the idealized. He hoped to present the sitter in a mater-of-fact way, divulging the hidden truths rather than faithfully depicting the accidental conditions of light as it moved across the body.


John pyper is an independent critic and curator based in Cambridge. He is a contributor to numerous art publications including art papers, daily serving, printeresting.com.

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