Posted by: davidlarkin | January 12, 2012

Lucian Freud Paints Isaiah Berlin

I wrote about celebrated 20th Century British Oxford philosopher/historian Isaiah Berlin and an old friend in my prior post, An Elegy for Lifelong Friendship. Another noteworthy event in Berlin’s life with an old friend occurred in 1996, a year before Berlin’s death. The British National Portrait Gallery offered artist Lucian Freud, Sigmund Freud’s grandson, a commission to paint a portrait of his choice.  From a universe of choice, he chose to paint his old friend Isaiah Berlin.  Lucian Freud first met Isaiah Berlin in 1938 at tea with Sigmund Freud at the Freud quarters in London at Maresfield Gardens, now the Freud Museum.

In 1996 in a studio on Kensington Church Street in London, Lucian Freud, 74 years old, and Isaiah Berlin, 86 years old, met again to make art.  Berlin sat for Freud more than a dozen times. Freud completed a charcoal drawing of Berlin’s head, but the oil portrait of Berlin sitting in an old armchair was never finished. Berlin’s biographer, Michael Ignatieff, describes Freud at work:

Isaiah sat in an old battered armchair while Freud sketched him first in pencil and then began to paint him in oils.  The time passed in gossip and then in silence, broken by the sound of charcoal on paper and paint on canvas.  As Freud worked, Isaiah passed in and out of sleep.  In the charcoal drawing, roughly eight by ten inches, Isaiah’s eyes are closed, his head back against the back of the armchair, his mouth shut, the curvature of his upper lip is perfectly caught, as is the shape of his bare forehead and his cheeks sunken and hollowed with age. In the oil painting, not much larger than a regular sheet of paper, Isaiah is shown leaning back with his head resting on the back of the battered armchair. Unlike the pencil sketch, his eyes are open. He is looking away to the left, full of melancholy, at something we cannot see.

(Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin, a life, 1998: p. 296)

At the end of his life, poet Stephen Spender, a lifelong friend from Oxford who died in 1993, sent Berlin a poem by a ninth-century Chinese poet, “which was an elegy for their lifelong friendship.” This poem may be found at this blog post:

An Elegy for a Lifelong Friendship


  1. More Isaiah Berlin links at the Isaiah Berlin Virtual Libary

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