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Girl with a White Dog by Lucian Freud
oil on canvas, 76.2 cm x 101.6 cm
purchased by the Tate Gallery 1952

She doesn't look like a girl. She looks 40, or at least 30, and if she really is only 20 this is the unflattering nature of Freud's portraits: he gives her lines, shadows, and a kind of drooping worry.

Brown curtains cover the wall behind, the sofa she's sitting on is brown with brown stripes, and a tiny piece of floor is just visible: brown. There's the beginning of a white door on the far right, and that's the total of the surroundings.

She is dressed in a lime-green bathrobe, not bright, but quite a strong colour; it reminds me of medieval Flemish paintings of women in velvet. It's a bathrobe, with a thick cord coming down from the waistband, but it's also a painter's prop. She is sitting at the right-hand end of the sofa with one leg stretched all along it, bare foot and ankle.

One breast is fully exposed, as is the shoulder of the arm that supports it, clasping her other. She gazes in a dispirited, rather uncaring way, not quite at the viewer, but a little downward. A large white breast with a wide areola and a mole on the tanned area above it ought to be more erotic than this; yet her sad presentation of it renders it impersonal. It's a strange pose even for a studio nude.

The dog is a bull terrier of some kind, the smooth-haired one that I think is called a Boston terrier: a rather ungainly face with pointed ears sticking up. It's lying on the sofa with her, in the gap left by her curled leg, with its head on her thigh, eyes half open as if awakened or about to fall asleep again.

She has wide lips, wide eyes, short brown hair, a somewhat heavy appearance, not unattractive if we overlook the tendency of Lucian Freud's blocking of colours to make her look half like a corpse. Her hands seem careworn for the same reason, and even her bare foot, which is why she doesn't look like what we (50 years on) would call a girl.

Yet the composition is affectionate. The dog is comfortable, the breast is living flesh, the woman is contemplating some mundane thing unrelated to the painter's presence. I wonder if her true story is anything remotely like the way I imagine it?

Actually she's Kitty Epstein, Freud's first wife. The postcard of this is now the best-selling one at Tate Britain, having overtaken Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais.

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