The Life of Lucian Freud

© David Dawson—Courtesy of Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert
© David Dawson—Courtesy of Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert
Lucian Shaving, 2006

When British painter Lucian Freud died in July 2011, TIME’s art critic Richard Lacayo wrote that Freud “proved with a bang the continuing vitality of the figurative tradition in art.” A prodigious realist painter, who many considered one of the greatest British artists of his generation, Freud began his career using sharp, tight lines. In the 1950s, he set aside his thin brushes for thicker, hog’s-bristle brushes that Lacayo wrote “pushed pigment across the canvas in rich, thick flourishes.”

Freud painted dozens of nudes and loved subjects with copious amounts of flesh. He took long periods to complete portraits and required his subjects to commit incredible amounts of time to the process. In 2007, the Telegraph chronicled Freud’s painting of art handler Rita Kirby, a process that took 16 months and required Kirby to pose for him seven nights a week on top of her day job.

A new exhibition at London’s Pallant House Gallery features photographs by David Dawson, who was Freud’s model and studio assistant for 20 years. The show features some of Freud’s key paintings alongside Dawson’s photographs of the artist at work in his studio. In addition to photographs of the painting process, Dawson captured intimate moments of Freud’s life, including the application of shaving cream with one of his large brushes and cuddling Kate Moss in bed.

What emerges is a portrait of an artist who took painstaking care to capture intimate details in his paintings where the point of completion was different for each one. “Freud’s criterion is that he feels he’s finished when he gets the impression he’s working on somebody else’s painting,” Martin Gayford wrote in the Telegraph in 2007. Freud often looked inward. His 2005 self-portrait—one of many he did in his lifetime—is one of his most recognized paintings. But perhaps the most complete portrait of Freud will emerge after his death in pictures from Dawson’s lens, instead of the artist’s brush.

David Dawson: Working with Lucian Freud is on view at the Pallant House Gallery through May 20. An exhibition of photographs by David Dawson will be available for sale at Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert through March 2.

Nate Rawlings is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @naterawlings

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