LONDON — In a time when other artists spilled their paints on the canvas, Lucian Freud carefully wiped his brush after every stroke. He painted intense, disturbing realist portraits even when representational art was deemed passe. He took months or longer to finish a work, but it took critics and collectors years to catch up to him.
A towering and uncompromising figure in the art world for more than 50 years, Freud died late Wednesday night in his London home, his New York-based art dealer said Thursday. He was 88.
Spokeswoman Bettina Prentice said that Freud died after an illness, but didn't give any further details.
He painted "until the day he died, far removed from the noise of the art world," his dealer, William R. Acquavella, said in a statement.
Freud's unique style eventually earned him recognition as one of the world's greatest painters. His paintings command staggering prices at auction, including one of an overweight nude woman sleeping on a couch that sold in 2008 for $33.6 million — a record for a living artist.
"He certainly is considered one of the most important painters of the 20th and 21st centuries," said Brett Gorvy, deputy chairman of the postwar art department at Christie's auction house in New York. "He stayed with his figurative approach even when it was extremely unpopular, when abstraction was the leading concept, and as time moved on his classic approach has proven to be very important.
"He fought the system and basically won."
A grandson of Sigmund Freud, a leading pioneer of modern psychoanalysis, Freud was especially known for his nudes. He meticulously revealed every flaw, creating an intimate, unflinching level of detail that sometimes leaves viewers uncomfortable.
"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.
"I think his work is very charged, and it is quite disturbing to look at," Figura 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."
Gorvy said Freud painted long hours every day, even in his late 80s, in a sustained bid to complete his life's work.
"He lived and breathed his art," he said. "For someone who was so successful, he was extraordinarily regulated in his day, with three main sittings a day and some at night. He worked each and every day to this very tough regime. He was very aware of his own mortality and he knew his time was very, very precious."
Born in Berlin in 1922, Freud moved to London with his parents Ernst and Lucie Freud in 1933 after Hitler and the Nazis rose to power in Germany.
He was naturalized as a British subject six years later and spent almost his entire working life based in London, where he was often seen at fashionable restaurants, sometimes with beautiful younger women, including the fashion model Kate Moss, whom he painted nude, and other luminaries.
He was at the height of his fame in the last decades of his life, when he still continued to paint for long hours at his studio in London's exclusive Holland Park. He was even named one of Britain's best dressed men by the fashion magazine GQ when he was well into his ninth decade.