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Lucian Freud, ‘Self-Portrait with Hyacinth in Pot’

by Mercia Last

At first glance Freud's gaze appears to be looking at you; but he's looking at his own mirror image. There is a directness and simplicity about this pencil and crayon drawing, but it also has a puzzling intensity. One takes in his confident, unerring line and the juxtaposition of his realistically drawn curls with the geometric minimalism of the rest of the portrait. Yet the flat, neutral background, the economy of line and, above all, the inclusion of the pot with its single hyacinth, tease the viewer, begging the question of why the plant is there.

From 1939 to 1942 Freud studied at the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing run by Cedric Morris and Arthur Lett Haines, who stressed the priority to be given to pupil's feelings about what was being drawn: 'Drawing, dictated by feeling could employ emotive distortion.' The self-portrait in Pallant House Gallery is one of several he did in the late 1940s, many of which have a flower or other natural object occupying the blank space. Many masters of the Northern Renaissance used this device as an emblem for a particular mood or psychological state. The precision has much in common with Renaissance portraits,such as Botticelli's 'Portrait of a Young Man' (National Gallery, London) in which the artist applies golden reddish strokes over the young man's curled locks, just as Freud applies light yellow highlights to the tight curls of this self-portrait.

In 1948 Freud created another self-portrait entitled 'Narcissus', an etching in which the artist gazes downward at the reflection of his image in a mirror, a reference to the mythological story of Echo and Narcissus. The artist's grandfather, the famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, had classified the self-absorbed person as 'narcissistic'. Perhaps the insertion of the hyacinth, another figure from classical mythology, is a reference to the generalised notion of the narcissistic psychology of great artists.