Witness Lucian Freud’s “The Brigadier,” which, at 7 feet high, is larger than life. It’s a scale that’s hard to pull off, especially for an artist who turned 80 while working on it. The British painter started to work big in the 1980s, and painted this work in 2003-4 - he died in 2011.
“The Brigadier” is the first of a series of works being showcased monthly through the summer by the Norton Museum of Art. (Future artists will include Mary Cassatt, Salvador Dali and Dorothea Lange.)
Each of the works has been chosen by a Norton curator from a local private collection, and few of them have been exhibited publicly. “The Brigadier” comes from the collection of Palm Beach’s Damon Mezzacappa, who has previously donated some Old Masters to the museum.
It compels admiration for Freud’s mastery of scale and gimlet eye, which is best demonstrated by the painting’s narrative tension: the splendid uniform worn by the subject, his slightly bleary face, and the stomach that bulges out behind the unbuttoned coat.
There’s no question that “The Brigadier” is a major work; as Cheryl Brutvan, the Norton’s Curator of Contemporary Art says, “I’d been thinking about another piece to kick off the series, but as soon as I saw this I wanted to spend time with it.”
The brigadier is Andrew Parker Bowles, a friend of Freud’s for decades and the first husband of Camilla Parker Bowles, the wife of Prince Charles. Bowles has a slightly Churchillian face and is wearing the uniform of the Commander of the Household Cavalry.
The backstory to the painting is that Bowles hadn’t worn the uniform in years and when he put it on he found that he had expanded beyond the confines of the coat. In order to make himself comfortable for the lengthy sittings Freud required, he opened the coat and his stomach came out.
Freud began his career with painfully penetrating autobiographial examinations of his own compromised marriage to Caroline Blackwood, but as he aged he turned his eye outward, to biographical examinations that emphasized human frailty. He also began painting more broadly, with loose treatment of the paint, but he always controlled his effects.
Up close, “The Brigadier” is thickly painted in a way that would seem difficult to control, but go back ten feet and it all comes together. As always with Freud, the implications are as dense as the treatment. “The Brigadier” references a famous Tissot painting of a soldier named Frederic Burnaby who’s also dressed in a stylish uniform. The Tissot is in in the National Portrait Gallery in London, a place Freud knew well.
Lucian Freud was never in the business of flattering his subjects, but neither does he make Bowles out to be a trainwreck of flesh; in the painting, Bowles looks to be about 70 and bibulous, but an accompanying photograph of Freud and his subject during a sitting shows that Bowles looked younger than his actual age at the time of 64 - a perfectly pleasant looking man.
“The Brigadier” will be on view only for the month of May, so don’t dawdle - it’s worth the trip.
By Lucien Freud, through May at the Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach. Information: norton.org