The world's greatest living painter dropped in to the Whitechapel Gallery in East London yesterday to admire one of his early paintings — a portrait from 1947-48 of a wavy-haired brunette clutching a flower.
A few hours later another wavy-haired brunette, born more than half a century after the model for Girl With Roses, was unveiled as Lucian Freud's latest muse.
Artistic fashions have fluctuated wildly since the 1940s, stretching from the abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko via the pop art experiments of Andy Warhol and the dark imaginings of Francis Bacon to the conceptual art of Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin.
But through each new movement Freud has remained steadfastly committed to classical, painstakingly executed figurative painting — mostly portraits of young women. After decades in the commercial wilderness his work now routinely sells for millions of pounds.
Perienne Christian, 25, has been posing nude for Freud in his Holland Park studio for more than a year and will be back there tonight as his latest work nears completion. An artist herself, she is the latest in a long line of much younger women painted by the 86-year-old Freud. They include Kate Moss, Jerry Hall, his daughters Esther and Bella, as well as Sue Tilley, the 20-stone civil servant in Benefits Supervisor Sleeping. The latter painting made Freud the most expensive living artist when it sold at Christie's in New York for $33.6million last May.
Last night Ms Christian told The Times that it had been a privilege “to watch a master painter at work”.
Ms Christian trained at the Prince's Drawing School in Hackney and is attempting to build her own career, having sold “three or four” oil paintings so far. An exhibition of her etchings and drawings, costing up to £1,000, opens at the RK Burt Gallery in Southwark this week.
In January a tutor at the Prince's Drawing School told her that Freud was looking for a model. A few days later he took her for breakfast in Kensington; soon afterwards she began travelling to his studio two or three times a week for evening sittings that lasted up to five hours.
Previous models have spoken of how Freud's entertaining conversation helped to ease the physically demanding work of holding a pose.
For some it went further. Dan Farson, the late critic, author and habitue of the same Soho drinking dens as Freud, once said of him: “Like Svengali, he mesmerises women into capitulation.”
Ms Christian says their relationship had been strictly professional: “I live with my boyfriend. There is never anything like that. It just seemed like an exciting opportunity.”
Not that the twinkle in the old master's eye has dimmed entirely. Standing on the pavement outside the soon-to-reopen Whitechapel Gallery, he confided that his libido had tended to keep him away from one of the British art world's most influential institutions.
“My travelling around London was chiefly to do with chasing girls.” he said. “Because Whitechapel was considered a Jewish district — and I'm Jewish — I thought I'd like a bit of a change. It's one reason I like Ireland so much.”