Boy Smoking 1950 is a small painting depicting the head of a young male shown close up so that his face fills most of the frame. The boy has pale skin, large blue eyes, a wide nose and thick lips, between which are placed a cigarette that has been partially smoked but is unlit. At the bottom of the picture is a dark grey band that may represent part of the boy’s torso or a flat surface on which he is resting his chin, and his hair, which is combed straight upwards, is cropped by the top of the picture. The boy stares out at the viewer with an ambiguous expression, although his brow is slightly furrowed and his eyes appear glazed, suggesting that he is lost in thought. A shadow runs down his left cheek and underneath his lips, while the cigarette in his mouth casts a vertical shadow down onto his chin. On the left side of the boy’s head is an area of white paint with two grey lines running diagonally across it, while the right side is mostly dark grey.
The painting was made by the British artist Lucian Freud in his studio in London in 1950. To create this work Freud took a used copper etching plate and prepared it with a thick layer of white primer. He then employed sable paintbrushes (as opposed to hogshair, which he would use almost exclusively from 1956 onwards) to apply a smoothly blended mixture of oil paint and tempera to the copper plate in fine, even brushstrokes. The white primer was left exposed by Freud to produce the lighter areas of the painting, except for the very brightest parts, which he created using a fresh application of white paint. Freud used thin washes of grey and brown underpaint to create areas of shadow around the boy’s eyes and hair. Each section of the painting has been given equal focus by Freud, establishing a uniformity of detail and flatness, characteristics not present in many of the artist’s later portraits.
The oversized almond shaped eyes and the plump mouth in Boy Smoking are features that recur in the portraits Freud made early in his career, as can be seen in Girl with a Kitten 1947 (Tate T12617), Narcissus 1948 (Tate T11793) and Francis Bacon 1952 (Tate N06040). Furthermore, the subjects of these early head-and-shoulder portraits are all presented in isolation, divorced from any context, with no indication of their personal history or social status. In this sense, they evoke the tradition of Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), a form of realist painting that emerged in the early 1920s in Germany and was characterised by its unsentimental style. (Freud was born in Berlin in 1922 and moved to Britain in 1933, and studied at a number of art schools during the war.) According to the art historian and Freud biographer William Feaver, Freud painted portraits such as Boy Smoking by sitting uncomfortably near to his subjects, often knee-to-knee, staring at them intently for periods of up to eight hours at a time during multiple sittings that extended over a period of several months (Feaver 2002, p.26).
The boy in the painting has been identified as Charlie Lumley, a neighbour and friend of Freud’s whom the artist painted regularly while occupying a studio in Delamere Terrace near Paddington during the 1950s. The inhabitants of this part of London at the time have been characterised by curator Catherine Lampert as ‘costermongers, villains and thieves’ (Lampert 1993, p.15), a description that could be applied to Lumley, whom Freud first encountered when Lumley and his brother were attempting to break into Freud’s studio (see Wilson 2008, p.112). It was during this period of time in which he was living and working in Paddington that Freud adopted the portrait as his primary mode of painting, stating in 1954 that a painter should seek models whose ‘aura’ would be the ‘starting point for his excitement’ (quoted in Lampert 1993, p.11). In addition to local criminals such as Lumley, the subjects of Freud’s portraits included his first wife Kitty Garman, the artist Francis Bacon, and other individuals with whom he had intimate and emotionally charged personal relationships.
Boy Smoking was first exhibited at the Hanover Gallery in London in 1950. The work was also shown in the British Pavilion at the twenty-seventh Venice Biennale in 1954 in an exhibition entitled Lucian Freud, Ben Nicholson and Francis Bacon. It later formed part of the private collection of the philanthropist Simon Sainsbury (1930–2006), who gifted the work to Tate in 2006 along with several other works by Freud, including Girl with a Kitten and The Painter’s Mother IV 1973 (Tate T12619).
Catherine Lampert, Lucian Freud: Recent Work, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1993.
William Feaver, Lucian Freud, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2002.
Andrew Wilson (ed.), The Simon Sainsbury Bequest to Tate and the National Gallery, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2008, reproduced p.17.
Supported by Christie’s.