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Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud

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Book Review Man with a Blue Scarf by Martin Gayford
Photo ©2012 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc.

Take an art critic, have him sit for months while an artist paints his portrait, and you've surely the ingredients for a good read. Make that artist the famous portrait painter Lucian Freud, the art critic the erudite Martin Gayford, and the time scale for the sitting more than a year, then the ingredients are transformed into a well-simmered and seasoned multi-course meal.

With my being a lover of the paintings of Lucian Freud, you might think I was predisposed to like this book. But in fact I put off reading it for ages, worried it might be full of ego-centric musings by the author, all about him and not the art or artist. I need not have worried. The musings are at times introspective, but not indulgent, providing intriguing insights into what it's like to sit for a portrait, to pose for a world renowned artist, to worry whether it would look like you too much or too little, the ever present threat of Freud deciding he did not like the painting and rejecting it.

Then there are the retold conversations with Freud in the studio and out to dinner afterwards (one of the rituals of sitting for Freud was to be taken to a meal), observations of his painting technique and studio. The space for afternoon sitters with daylight, and the shuttered room for evening sittings with artificial light. The snippets of information -- such as Freud having access to the National Gallery after closing hours, "a privilege award to some senior artists and trustees" (page 127). Freud's views on famous artists and his contemporary, Francis Bacon. His views on being an artist, and viewing art. For instance:"He goes to an art gallery... to go around thinking, Ah, that's how that could be mended. That's the way to put that right."(page 127)

I found the book compelling reading, hard to put down but at the same time a book to be savored not rushed through. It is not divided into traditional chapters, but sections by date of a sitting. Within these there are breaks as the topic changes, which make it easy to limit yourself to a small section at a time, to absorb it slowly.

As with most non-fiction books, I read it pencil in hand, though I was pleased to see it does have an index. As the author points out in his acknowledgments on page 242, it includes an entry "which may indeed be unique in the history of indexing", one for "eggs, personalities of", taking you to a still-life painting by Freud of some eggs. Freud said that painting it he "discovered that on close examination each showed distinct personal traits" (page 23). I looked up a few things in the index to check, most of which I found but not all -- such as the anecdote about having two near-identical blue scarves. But that's why I read with a pencil in hand.

Martin Gayford sat for both an oil portrait and an etching, over months and months. As is typical with Freud, the painting doesn't name the sitter, but was titled simply Man with a Blue Scarf. Freud's powerful observation of color is highlighted by the anecdote about the writer discovering -- after a sitting during which Freud struggled with mixing the color, wiping off and starting again -- he had two royal blue scarves, one "about half a tone darker than the other" (page 121). It also highlights his approach to painting, to work in detail on a small section at a time after his initial drawing, rather than blocking in the canvas overall.

  • Written by art critic, writer, and curator Martin Gayford.
  • published by Thames and Hudson in 2010 (hardback) and January 2012 (paperback).
  • 248 pages with 63 illustrations, 57 in color
  • ISBN Hardback 9780500238752, Paperback 9780500289716
  • A lovely detail on the hardback is that it has a royal blue ribbon, like a little blue scarf.

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