British artist Lucian Freud dies at 88

Lucian Freud, considered one of Britain's most pre-eminent realist painters, has died at age 88, his dealer says.
Lucian Freud's Benefits Supervisor Sleeping sold in 2008 for $33.6 million US. Freud died Wednesday. (Christie's/Associated Press)

Lucian Freud, considered one of Britain's most pre-eminent realist painters, has died at age 88, his dealer says.

Freud died Wednesday night at his home in London after a brief illness, said William Acquavella, owner of Acquavella Galleries in New York. He referred to Freud as "one of the great artists of the 20th century."

"He lived to paint and painted until the day he died, far removed from the noise of the art world," Acquavella said.

Freud, grandson of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, was known for his portraits of human figures, especially his nudes.

He painted regular people, often family members and friends, sometimes with their pets, layering thick gobs of paint on the canvas to convey fleshy curves.

Among his famous works are Girl With a White Dog, a portrait of his first wife that hangs in the Tate Gallery in London, and a 2001 portrait of Queen Elizabeth II that was controversial because it was not beautiful.

He also did famous portraits of his contemporaries, including artists such Frank Auerbach and Francis Bacon.

In recent years, his work has commanded top dollar at art auctions.

Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, Freud's 1995 painting of a sleeping, naked woman, sold to an anonymous buyer for $33.6 million US in 2008, setting a new record for the sale of a work by a living artist.

Beaverbrook gallery dispute

Boy Smoking by Lucian Freud, dated 1951-2, is an early work now in the Tate Britain collection. (Associated Press)
A painting by Freud was also involved in an ownership dispute between the Beaverbrook U.K. Foundation and Fredericton's Beaverbrook Art Gallery. Freud's Hotel Bedroom, valued at $5 million, was eventually awarded to the gallery in a 2010 settlement.

His work is in top collections around the world, including the National Portrait Gallery in London, the National Gallery of Modern Art in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art in New York

Freud refused to follow the trends of the art world, sticking with realism even when it was out of favour. Yet his style was distinctive. He never glossed over physical flaws in his portraiture, seeming fascinated with the folds and curves of real humans.

"I'm really interested in people as animals," he told curators at Tate Britain in advance of a major show in 2002.

"Part of my liking to work from them naked is for that reason, because I can see more ... I like people to look as natural and as physically at ease as animals."

Freud  was born in Berlin in 1922 and moved to London with his parents Ernst and Lucie Freud in 1933 to escape the Nazis in Germany.  He was naturalized as a British subject six years later and spent almost his entire working life based in London.

His first solo exhibition was at the Lefevre Gallery in 1944 after a brief stint working on a merchant ship during the Second World War.

After the war, Freud left London for several years to paint in France, Ireland and Greece.  On his return in 1948, he started showing his work regularly at various exhibits and also taught art.

He was part of a loose group of figurative artists that included Francis Bacon and American Ronald Kitaj called the School of London in the 1970s.

Freud became known for his long sittings with live subjects — often for several hours a day because of his preference for painting from life.

Even in recent years, he painted for long hours at his studio in London's exclusive Holland Park.

"He has certainly divided critics," said Starr Figura, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

"The ones who don't appreciate him find his work hard to look at and a bit out of step with what is going on in the rest of the world. They have a hard time categorizing it."

She said Freud's work can be unsettling.

"I think his work is very charged, and it is quite disturbing to look at," she said. "That's what gives people a problem and that's what gives his work power and fascination. His work is incredibly personal, and that comes through. On the other hand it is also very detached and critical and that is what makes it so intense."

With files from The Associated Press