~ Posted by Simon Willis, October 5th 2012

Annibale Carracci and Lucian Freuds old women

The faces of the two women are separated by nearly 400 years. One was painted by the Italian artist Annibale Carracci in around 1590. It's a headshot; the woman looks straight out. Her ageing skin is mottled and sallow, except around the eyes, where the lids and bags are pink, the tear ducts red and raw. She has dimples in her jowls, and tension in her lips. The other woman's face was painted by Lucian Freud in 1972. She is his mother. She isn't gaunt like Carracci's old woman—her face is fleshy—but she's got the tight lips, the same strain where chin meets cheek. Most of all she's got the eyes, which look off to the left, her expression a mix of melancholy, fear and focus. In both pictures the eyes take us inside the women's minds. They seem to have a burden in common. 

When Lucian Freud saw Carracci's old woman late in his life in a private collection in London, he is reported by the owner of the painting to have said, "I wish I could paint like this." So two curators, Pilar Ordovas and Xavier Bray, decided to pair the two artists. Their exhibition, "Painting from Life", opens today at Ordovas in London. There are three portraits by Carracci in the show and six by Freud.

Carracci painted grand altar pieces for churches and chapels, and ceilings in buildings like the Palazzo Farnese in Rome, but it was his small personal studies that appealed to Freud. In a short video projected onto the wall at the gallery, Freud tells an interviewer, "I go to see paintings rather like going to the doctor—to get some help." The best medicine came, it seems, from paintings a little like his own: intimate portraits painted from models in the privacy of the studio. Carracci's studies weren't for exhibition. The old woman is painted on a piece of paper which, before Carracci laid down his oil paints, served as a laundry list. You can still see the Renaissance handwriting through the paint—in her hair and eye sockets, and on her shoulder—all backwards-facing ascenders and elaborate capitals.

Pilar Ordovas, who owns the gallery, writes in the catalogue that apart from his one comment about the old woman, Freud didn't ever speak or write about Carracci. The line makes for high praise, and a slim premise for an exhibition. But it doesn't matter because the ingenious pairing of the paintings creates a frisson. Freud's mother and the old woman don't look at each other, but if they did, despite being 400 years apart, it looks as though each would understand what the other meant. Freud saw the Carracci long after he'd painted his mother. He may have wished he could paint like that, but it turns out he already had.

"Painting from Life" is on at Ordovas until December 15th

Simon Willis is apps editor of Intelligent Life. His recent posts for the Editors' Blog include The bus to Wutai Shan and Art and debris in Beijing

Pictures: Annibale Carracci, "Head of Old Woman" (circa 1590) © The Daniel Katz Family Trust; Lucian Freud, "The Painter’s Mother II" (1972) © Lucian Freud