An intimate work painted at the height of Lucian Freud’s international acclaim, Painter’s Garden offers a rare glimpse of the world beyond his studio. Executed in 2003, and included in his landmark exhibition at the Wallace Collection in London the following year, it belongs to a sequence of works depicting the back garden of his home at 138 Kensington Church Street, where he spent the last fifteen years of his life. Charged with the piercing scrutiny of his portrait practice, these works stand among the most poignant creations of this period. It was here, in the overgrown fifty-foot stretch of bamboo, apple trees and buddleias, that Freud finally embraced working en plein air, realising an ambition incited by his encounters with the work of John Constable almost sixty years previously. In contrast to his pristine botanical still lifes, which reached their pinnacle in the masterpiece Two Plants (1977-80; Tate, London), here the artist adopted a looser painterly style, liberated by his attempt to capture nature’s unpredictable rhythms. Though undeterred by this new challenge as he entered his ninth decade, Freud was increasingly aware of the passage of time. Below the tree lay the ashes of his whippet Pluto: his faithful companion and frequent subject, who passed away shortly before the present work. Infused with life, movement and a newfound sense of urgency, Painter’s Garden bears witness to the dual spirit of innovation and self-reflection that defined the artist’s final decade.
By the early 2000s, Freud’s international standing was undisputed. Following the celebrated portraits of Sue Tilley and Leigh Bowery created during the 1990s, he was widely hailed as the nation’s greatest living painter. In 2001, he was commissioned to paint Queen Elizabeth II; the following year his major retrospective opened at the Tate Britain, London, to outstanding critical acclaim. His exhibition at the Wallace Collection, which subsequently travelled to New York, built upon this momentum: the critic Robert Hughes wrote of “a genuine national treasure, briefly ensconced in one of England’s (and the world’s) supreme collections” (R. Hughes, “The Master at Work,” The Guardian, April 6, 2004). Unprecedented numbers of people surged through the small galleries. Freud’s daughter Annie recalls that the museum was “stuffed to the gunnels from morning to night,” forcing staff to introduce crowd control measures (A. Freud, quoted in P. Hoban, Lucian Freud: Eyes Wide Open, Seattle, 2014, p. 142). The garden paintings sat alongside significant new portraits including The Brigadier (2003), David and Eli (2003-04; Tate, London) and Portrait on a White Cover (2002-03), as well as works now held in the Victoria & Albert Museum, Chatsworth House and the Art Gallery of New South Wales. “Freud, who is 81, is at the top of his form,” wrote Sebastian Smee, “and these new pictures press in fiercely on the mind and heart” (S. Smee, “A unique way of seeing and feeling,” The Telegraph, April 5, 2004).
Freud frequently described himself as a “biologist,” and had long been interested in the natural world. At art school in rural Dedham between 1939 and 1941, he imbibed the botanical interests of his teacher Cedric Morris: an avid horticulturalist and landscape painter. Moreover, he was fully aware of the shadow of Constable, whose name had become synonymous with the region, and whose Study for Trunk of an Elm Tree (1821) he had admired in the Victoria & Albert Museum. In a bid to imitate the latter, the young Freud set up an easel outside, but claimed he found open-air conditions impossible. Whilst indoor studies of plants came to populate his practice, he repeatedly avoided painting the natural landscape from life. “I never work in direct sunlight because I can’t see properly in it, I can’t see the forms sufficiently,” he later explained. He also valued the privacy of the studio, complaining of a “feeling about other people, with not wanting to be watched” (L. Freud, quoted in M. Gayford, Lucian Freud, vol. 2, London 2018, p. 221). During the early 1970s, he made a brief exception, creating a small series of suburban London landscapes. It was not until the late 1990s, prompted by his move to Notting Hill Gate, that the garden began to feature prominently in his oeuvre. The house’s ground floor veranda, with its leafy canopy above, provided a welcome shelter from both the sunlight and his neighbors. On the brink of his eightieth birthday, Freud threw himself wholeheartedly into a new way of painting.
The present work and its companions marked an important stylistic shift in his practice. In Garden, Notting Hill Gate (1997)—an early work in the series—Freud spoke of “a race against autumn … I was very conscious of where I was leading the eye. Where I wanted the eye to go but not to rest; that is, the eye shouldn’t settle anywhere.” Sidestepping the precision and clarity of his still life plant studies, the garden paintings were alive with rapid, intuitive strokes of impasto, capturing the play of light and shifting elemental conditions. “My way of trying to keep in time with nature is to keep it very loose,” he explained (L. Freud, quoted in W. Feaver, Lucian Freud, New York 2007, pp. 33-34). The present work glows with fresh immediacy, near-abstract in its rich accrual of color and texture. In contrast to the decaying indoor specimens featured in Two Plants—described by Freud as “lots of little portraits of leaves”—the scene is wrought with the same visceral life-force as his depictions of naked flesh (L. Freud, quoted at https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/freud-two-plants-t03105 [accessed March 8, 2019]). Freud produced several variations on the present work, including a remarkable large-scale etching (2003–04), and a further canvas of the same title (2005–06). During this period, his thought turned increasingly to Constable, having recently curated an exhibition of his work at the Centre Georges Pompidou. Shortly after Painter’s Garden, he produced After Constable’s Elm (2003), a tribute to the work that had thwarted him all those years ago.
In many ways, then, Freud’s practice had come full circle. It was a complex time for the artist. On one hand, his creative instincts were stronger than ever; as a painter, said Hughes, he was “younger” and “sexier” than any of the YBAs (R. Hughes, ibid). On the other hand, he was aware that time was fleeting. Though Freud’s works had always been personal, they were increasingly populated by tender affirmations of life: his grandchildren, his animals and his garden. Pluto’s Grave, painted just before the present work, is less a meditation on the death of his pet than a celebration of the leaves and plants that now grew upon his remains. Significantly, the techniques developed in the garden paintings would come to have a noticeable impact on his self-portraits, which were progressively defined by their fluid, impressionistic surfaces. Examples from 2002 and 2003–04 bear witness to this quality, their resolution blurred as if seeking to “keep in time with nature.” “My work is purely autobiographical,” said Freud. “… It is about myself and my surroundings. It is an attempt at a record” (L. Freud, quoted in Lucian Freud, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, 1974, p. 13). Painter’s Garden, in this regard, may be understood as a portrait of his own condition.