Lucian Freud's portrait of his daughter, Isobel, to make auction debut
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Lucian Freud's portrait of his daughter, Isobel, to make auction debut
Lucian Freud, Ib Reading, 1997, est. £15-20 million. Courtesy Sotheby's.

LONDON.- Last seen publicly more than 20 years ago in an exhibition in New York, Lucian Freud’s meditative portrait of his daughter, Isobel Boyt (known by family and close friends as Ib), is set to star as a major highlight of Sotheby’s Modern and Contemporary evening sale in London on 1 March 2023. Carrying an estimate of £15-20 million, Ib Reading is coming to auction for the very first time, having remained in the same private collection since it was acquired shortly after its creation.

Executed in 1997, during a decade in which saw Freud paint some of his most ambitious works, the artist’s portrayal provides a window onto a quiet introspective moment of Isobel – wearing a loose dress, her feet resting on the chair opposite in a pose of serenity, and reading Marcel Proust’s novel, Remembrance of Things Past, open in her lap. Painted in Freud’s innermost sanctum, his Holland Park studio, behind Isobel stands a plain oak chest with tarnished brass handles, in which Freud kept his letters, telegrams and photographs from as early as the 1940s. In a literal sense, it was his ‘chest of memories’, which he would often rummage through in search of pertinent items.

Reminiscing about the duration for which she sat for her father, Isobel remarked: “My father never chose the pose of his sitters. He would often make suggestions, but he never said, ‘I want you wearing this and sitting there’. There were limited possibilities with the studio too, with minimal furniture, a day bed, an armchair but not much more. It was always very warm. He made everything feel easy and the choice was endlessly yours. He wanted to paint people as they were, he didn’t want to mould them or persuade them to do one thing or another. He had chosen to paint us, and part of who we were was how we chose to sit.”

“I did not wish to be portrayed reading, I wished to read. It was something I normally wouldn’t have time to do with three young children. It was an opportunity. My father was very well read. Any turn of phrase, sentence or even paragraph he was impressed by, he would often learn and recite. He had an incredible memory and loved literature.”

Isobel read the entirety (and more) of Proust’s 4,000-page volume during the hours she sat for her father. Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past is his allegorical search for the truth, and how humanity can reconstruct the past through memories. The character, Albertine, as well as Proust’s treatment of obsessive love and tortuous jealousy, became a catalyst for many conversations between Isobel and Freud.

During his lifetime, Freud painted, drew or etched more than thirty portraits of his children, and often after a significant time of paternal absence had passed. For both the artist and his children, these sittings became an opportunity to better know one another: to connect and to develop a relationship in these uninterrupted moments.

“Who are closer than my children?” --Lucian Freud

Referred to by Freud as ‘The Ibscape’, Ib Reading is one of five painted portraits the artist created of Isobel during his lifetime. The first painting, titled Large Interior, Paddington (1968-9), which he executed when Isobel was just seven years old, resides in the collection of the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid. In 1992, Freud also painted Isobel with the father of her children. At that time, she was pregnant with her youngest daughter Alice, whom he went on to complete two paintings of as a child.

Freud first met Isobel’s mother, Suzy Boyt, at the Slade School of Fine Art during the 1950s, she a talented student and he a part-time teacher, describing her - in his own words - as “that marvellous girl with the green hair”. Between 1957 and 1969, Freud and Boyt had four children together, Alexander, Rose, Isobel and Susie, all of whom would become the subject of many of Freud’s greatest works.

Ib Reading illuminates Freud’s mastery in the genre of portraiture, though his output was restricted to capturing only those closest to him. Whether self-portraits, or portraits of friends, lovers, fellow artists, luminaries and notably, his children, Freud did not take commissions and instead chose only to paint those with a particular significance to him. He would scrutinise his sitter for hour upon hour, day upon day, as an artist notorious for taking months and even years over a particular work. In the case of Ib Reading, it took Freud over a year to finish the portrait, for which Isobel would sit three times per fortnight, and always during the day.

In its subject and depiction, Ib Reading belongs to a long tradition of classical portraits of women reading, from Piero di Cosimo and Johannes Vermeer to Berthe Morisot and Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Vincent Van Gogh, all of whom sought to capture the same subject in paint. Quiet and contemplative, Freud’s portrait also evokes James Abbott McNeil Whistler’s portrayal of his mother from 1871, in which the artist - like Freud - depicts her in a pose of infinite patience and repose. Like many sitters before her, Isobel’s head and eyes are angled downward towards the pages of Proust; she does not confront the viewer, rather the viewer confronts her in a moment of privacy.

Ib Reading will star as a highlight of this season’s major auctions at Sotheby’s in London alongside another artist’s portrait of his daughter: Pablo Picasso’s tender painting of his daughter, Maya, formerly owned by Gianni Versace and re-emerging onto the market for the first time in almost a quarter of a century (est. in the region of £12-20m). Also offered in the sale will be a newly-restituted painting by Wassily Kandinsky, and one of the most important works by the artist to appear at auction (est. in the region of £35m); Edvard Munch’s seminal four-metre long Dance on the Beach (est. in the region of £12-20m); one of Gerhard Richter’s greatest monumental Abstract masterpieces (est. in excess of £20m) and a time-transcending work by Barbara Kruger, which is as relevant today as it was at the time of its creation in 1989 (est. £500,000-700,000).

Ib Reading comes to auction just as the artist’s major retrospective, Lucian Freud: New Perspectives, opens at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid (and will run until June 2023), having previously been shown at The National Gallery in London.

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