This video allegedly records Lucian Freud’s last day of painting: July 3, 2011, roughly two weeks before he died at age 88. The film was recorded by David Dawson, Freud’s assistant of 20 years, and it begins with the artist getting dressed for work. We are in Freud’s home, which is very quiet, with lots of paintings on the walls, and filled with a subtle, natural light. He was particular about painting under a northern light, which he once described as “cold and clear and constant.”
In the studio, we look up at Freud from Dawson’s perspective, who sits, along with Freud’s serenely sleeping dog, Pluto, for the artist’s final (unfinished) painting. We know from the painting that Dawson is lying back on a white cloth, naked with his legs splayed. As Freud asks him to adjust his knee ever so slightly, we imagine Dawson has taken the same position for several months — Freud, who worked slowly, was firm on that point.
According to Martin Gayford, Freud started painting seated, but once he began to work standing he found it “liberating.” In the video, Freud sports an elegant scarf, worn just for painting. A piece of cloth, caked with paint, covers his pants. He dips his brush in the paint on his palette and holds it up to Dawson’s skin to see if the colors match. Freud traces his brush over his sitter’s body before making his marks on the canvas in quick succession. In regard to his canvas, Freud once said, “I like it to be very firm because if my brush pushes the canvas in, I feel it spoils my sense that I’m painting something real. I think, ‘Oh no! I’m only painting a picture.’”