Portrait of Leon Kossoff 1951 is a medium-size painting of the artist Leon Kossoff made by his close friend, the British painter Frank Auerbach. In this portrait, Kossoff’s head fills most of the composition and is turned slightly to his right side, so that his left ear and the side of his neck are visible. At the bottom right corner is a red area that may represent Kossoff’s shoulder, but aside from this there is little suggestion of a setting surrounding the sitter. The painting has been executed in an expressive, layered style using a limited colour palette consisting of red, brown, yellow and black, and as a result Kossoff’s face seems to blend into the background in places. For instance, his left cheek and his chin and neck blur together into one brown mass that extends into the earth-coloured ground surrounding them. Despite this, the painting still clearly represents a human face, with eyes that are cast downwards in a way that suggests that the sitter is deep in thought. The close-up intimacy of the portrait is contrasted with its scale, which is such that the head appears around twice the size of a human head. The painting’s size also allows the viewer to discern the gradations of colour and the details of the expression when seen at first hand.
Portrait of Leon Kossoff was painted from life in 1951, when Auerbach was a student at St Martin’s School of Art in London and was working in a studio space on the art school’s premises. He created the image by painting thickly onto the canvas with oil paint, layering his colours multiple times.
Auerbach and Kossoff first met in the Antique Room at St Martin’s in 1948 and soon became close friends. They began to work alongside one another and would search London’s streets and the National Gallery together for subject matter for their work. They began to model for each other in the 1950s, and in 1986, when Auerbach was asked to list the individuals who had inspired his practice, Kossoff was one of only three living artists that Auerbach named.
Auerbach’s choice of Kossoff as a sitter for this portrait may reflect the fact that Auerbach preferred to paint people that he knew. As he explained in 1978, this was because
If one has a chance of seeing people apart from the time when one’s painting them, one notices all sorts of things about them. If one sees them in movement, one realises all sorts of truths about them and one’s infinitely less likely to be satisfied with a superficial statement. Those things that are particular to them to some small extent may lead to a particularity of image, because one thereby gets the confidence to make statements which one knows to be true which conform to no statement that already exists within painting … It’s just that familiarity with the subject and with the person is a sort of short-cut in that sphere of study.
(Quoted in Hayward Gallery 1978, p.12.)
Portrait of Leon Kossoff was created early in Auerbach’s career and is less abstract and sculptural in style than the work he began to produce by the beginning of the 1960s (see, for example, Head of E.O.W. I 1960, Tate T06682). The portrait nonetheless displays several of the stylistic features characteristic of Auerbach’s later paintings, such as the thickness of the paint and the use of a limited colour palette. Furthermore, as is seen in many of Auerbach’s later portraits, here the subject is shown averting his eyes from the viewer’s gaze, a feature which the curator Isabel Carlisle has observed ‘suggests an inner world of thought brought to the surface by long hours of sitting’ (Royal Academy of Arts 2001, p.34).
Auerbach’s paintings were not well received by critics during the 1950s and 1960s, and the art historian and critic Robert Hughes recalls feeling that his work ‘seemed ill-synchronised with its times’ (Robert Hughes, Frank Auerbach, London 1992, p.10). However, Auerbach became a key member of the influential School of London, a group of painters working in London during the 1960s and 1970s that also included Kossoff, Lucian Freud, R. B. Kitaj and Francis Bacon. Although only loosely considered an art historical movement, the School of London offered new approaches to figurative drawing and painting at a time when art had become dominated by abstraction, minimalism and conceptualism.
Frank Auerbach, exhibition catalogue, Hayward Gallery, London 1978.
Colin Wiggins, Frank Auerbach and the National Gallery: Working After the Masters, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery, London 1995.
Isabel Carlisle, Catherine Lampert and Norman Rosenthal, Frank Auerbach: Paintings and Drawings 1954–2001, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy of Arts, London 2001.