In his 1995 painting, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, Lucian Freud (1922-2011) captures “Big Sue Tilley” in voluptuous repose on a couch in his studio. Light and shadow play on her ample mounds of white flesh, creating a liquid pool of pink, white and orange tones that flow across her body. Her eyes are closed as she cups her breast with her right hand and clutches the couch’s back with her left arm. Freud painted Tilley from a perspective that puts the viewer slightly above her, so that we are peering down onto Tilley while she is napping, unawares.
“Big Sue Tilley,” an employee of England’s Department for Work and Pensions who met Freud through a mutual friend, recalls that she often dozed off while posing during the nine months that she modeled for the artist in the mid-1990s. Freud, an artist who is associated with a postwar group of British painters that also included Francis Bacon and Frank Auerbach, often called the School of London, found inspiration for his psychological, hyper-detailed portraiture in earlier 20th-century movements like the New Objectivity. In addition to contemporary influences, the 19th-century French painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres fascinated Freud, who often described his painting and their fleshy exuberance “Ingresesque.” This painting sold for $33.6 million in May 2008, establishing a world record for the highest price paid for a work by a living artist.
Freud took realism to the nth degree, focusing on every wrinkle, follicle and roll of fat that his sitters brought into his studio. He once said, “I want my painting to be as flesh. For me, the painting is the person and I want its effect on me to be the same as the effect of flesh.” The pictorial effect of Freud’s eagle eye, painterly realism is that everything becomes sensuous, from Big Sue’s girth to the fine wood grain of the floor to what is left on the disused upholstery on his studio couch. Freud’s sitter (sleeper) and her inanimate surroundings become a harmonious aggregate of surface and implied texture: a visual cornucopia of skins.