Image: Tate - http://www.tate.org.uk/art/images/work/T/T12/T12617_10.jpg
‘Girl with a Kitten’ by Lucian Freud, is to me as an artist, a very fascinating painting. It is a portrait of the artist’s first wife, Kitty Garman, who was the daughter of famous sculptor Jacob Epstein. Freud painted her in 1947, a year before their tempestuous marriage. The painter’s future wife is cloaked under the anonymous title, ‘Girl with a Kitten’, highlighting that this is a double portrait, equally of the ‘girl’ and of the young kitten who is clasped strangely by the neck.
The enigmatic pair are painted in muted, ashen colours, a myriad of dove greys and soft blues, set against the dark swathes of Garman’s mahogany hair, which seem frayed and static from the intensity of the painter’s gaze. The colours are a precursor of Freud’s later impasto flesh tones that would become so acclaimed, yet in this painting they appear restrained like the tight grip of the sitter on the kitten’s neck.
What so thrills me about this painting, as an artist and as a curious human being, is how impenetrable this portrait is. Freud structures the portrait with a three quarter profile of his future wife, with her gaze averted, making her inaccessible, yet he places the kitten staring directly out of the centre of the canvas. With such a direct gaze, it makes me feel that the kitten is more than just a passive addition to the painting, but an emblem of Kitty Garman herself. However, this is surprising as it is so unlike Freud to use symbols in his work, claiming that his ideal in art is to appear ‘in his work no more than God in nature’. But why is the kitten’s gaze so direct and unblinking? Why does it stare with such intensity at the viewer? To me it seems that the kitten plays with the sitter’s name, linking ‘kitten’ with ‘Kitty’, giving the anonymous ‘girl’ an identity and pairing their feline eyes and heart shaped faces.
If this is so, it would make me feel that it tells us more about Garman and Freud’s relationship. In the painting, the girl seems absent, with a look of almost horror in her eyes. She is distant from her grip on the kitten, which makes me wonder if this grasp reflects not herself but the artist’s grip on her, his ‘Kitty’, as her future husband. The look of tension in her eyes makes me think of ‘My Last Duchess’ by Robert Browning – “That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall”… I feel that Garman becomes a possession of the artist, as in the Duke’s ruthless collection, to be collected with many other women that he would love and paint. In this piece, it seems to me that it captures Garman’s dawning realisation of her partner’s turbulent nature, suspending perfectly this line - ‘Then all smiles stopped together’…
On the other hand, on closer inspection you can see that Garman’s eyes are painted in startling hazel green, whereas the kitten’s eyes are a lucid pale blue, which more closely resemble Freud’s eyes.
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