Lucian Freud Paints Queen Elizabeth II

Is Lucian Freud's penetrating style of painting suitable for a royal portrait?

Lucian Freud painting of Queen Elizabeth II
Lucian Freud painting of Queen Elizabeth II. Photo © Sion Touhig/Getty Images

Lucian Freud was often been described as Britain's greatest living figurative painter. So was it any wonder that Queen Elizabeth II agreed to his request to paint her portrait? After all, monarchs have always been painted by the leading portrait artist of their time. King Henry VIII was painted by Holbein, Charles V by Titian, Charles I by Van Dyck, and Philip IV of Spain by Velázquez to name but a few.

The painting itself is very small, six by nine inches (about 15 by 22 centimeters). It wasn't commissioned, but done on Lucian Freud's request as a gift to the Queen. One can only presume she was familiar with Lucian Freud's style and knew what she was letting herself in for.

Some of the critics of the painting seemed surprised Lucian Freud had the audacity to paint his monarch in his usual intense, penetrating style. The Sun newspaper, never known for its tact, described it as "a travesty" saying Freud should be "locked in the Tower" for it. The Editor of the British Art Journal was quoted as saying: "It makes her look like one of the royal corgis who has suffered a stroke."

Lucian Freud was known for requiring sitters to come to his studio for many, many sessions. Obviously you doesn't tell your monarch to come to your studio; instead, the sittings happened at St James's Palace, between May 2000 and December 2001. At Freud's request, the Queen wore the diamond crown she wears for the opening of the British parliament and in her portrait on stamps and bank notes. Freud was quoted as saying this was because he "had always liked the way her head looks on stamps, wearing a crown" and he "wanted to make some reference to the extraordinary position she holds, of being the monarch."

Lucian Freud has described his paintings as "a kind of truth-telling exercise." And the truth of the matter is that the British monarch is not a young woman. Whether you think Lucian Freud's painting is a disgrace or a masterpiece will depend on whether or not you like his powerful painting style. And perhaps on whether you think it's appropriate for a monarch. It's certainly very different to previous, more traditional royal portraits.

Lucian Freud's portrait has entered the collection at the Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace, in London.