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The New York Times besøger Celia Paul & Cecily Brown

Celia Paul at her studio in London.Credit…Alice Mann/Institute, for The New York Times

Can a Woman Who Is an Artist Ever Just Be an Artist?

The lives of two painters, Celia Paul and Cecily Brown, tell very different stories about what it takes to thrive in a medium historically dominated by men.

In a recent feature film about the sculptor Alberto Giacometti, we find the great man in his Paris studio, brooding over the difficulty of giving birth to his own genius. Fuming and raging, lashing out at his familiars, he is a chain-smoking wild beast being kept in cultural captivity. His growing fame brings admirers to his freezing workshop, where they wonder at his ascetic indifference to discomfort, and still more — gifted as he surely is — at his capacity for self-criticism. Not that his manhood can be in any doubt: He flaunts his ravishing young mistress before his careworn, miserable wife, who nonetheless remains his devoted slave in the fervent belief that she is the one who truly understands him. In one scene, in a fit of furious dissatisfaction, he hurls a sheaf of sketches into a flaming brazier before a group of astonished onlookers. The camera shows the horror on their faces as they watch the artworks burn, a horror it is assumed we share. It isn’t just the sight of Giacometti’s sketches going up in smoke that appalls us; it’s the fact that, to our retrospective eyes, he might as well be burning thousand-dollar bills.

The cultural image of the male artist has perhaps evaded a proper examination: Who would conduct one? For this caricature is so intertwined with the public understanding and consumption of art that the two can perhaps never be separated. The male artist, in our image of him, does everything we are told not to do: He is violent and selfish. He neglects or betrays his friends and family. He smokes, drinks, scandalizes, indulges his lusts and in every way bites the hand that feeds him, all to be unmasked at the end as a peerless genius. Equally, he does the things we are least able or least willing to do: to work without expectation of a reward, to dispense with material comfort and to maintain an absolute indifference to what other people think of him. For he is the intimate associate of beauty and the world’s truth, dispenser of that rare substance — art — by which we are capable of feeling our lives to be elevated.

Is there a female equivalent to this image? Does the woman artist feel herself to be interchangeable with the film character, with his lusts and his genius and his rage? For it seems to me, watching such a film, that the age-old question of what it is to be her goes unasked once more. It may even be that each time the synthesizing of art with masculine behaviors is casually reinforced, we know less about the woman artist than we did before. Her existence entails a far more stringent set of justifications. In the history of visual art, her appearance is the rarest of exceptions to the male rule. But of any woman creator an explanation is required of whether, or how, she dispensed with her femininity and its limitations, with her female biological destiny; of where — so to speak — she buried the body. That same body, in Western art, is contested: It has been condensed into the propulsive eroticism of the artistic impulse; it has fueled and fed the search for beauty and its domination by artistic form. In the story of art, woman attains the status of pure object. What does her subjectivity even look like? Did the female artists who emerged in the modern era — Joan Mitchell, Paula Rego, Louise Bourgeois, Agnes Martin — navigate the styles of male cultural power by imitating them or by living at their margins? Today, when a woman artist sets out to create, who is she?

The first time I visit the artist Celia Paul at her flat, she shows me a photograph. In it, she is sitting on a bed, a pale and puny young woman dressed in clothes that are somehow institutional-looking, with a sheaf of long hair falling around her elfin face. On one side of her sits the artist Lucian Freud; on the other — almost acting the role of his accomplice — sits his 22-year-old daughter, Bella. All three are laughing. It is an image of staged playfulness, the three of them rollicking on the bed, though the strange girl in the middle bears on her half-shocked features the marks of a very different kind of life from the other two. The Freuds are well dressed, full of beans, like two celebrities visiting an orphanage, fondling this odd creature as though they are considering devouring her.

Celia Paul (center) with Lucian Freud and his daughter Bella at his studio in London in the early 1980s. This is the photo Celia showed the writer at their first meeting.

Celia Paul (center) with Lucian Freud and his daughter Bella at his studio in London in the early 1980s. This is the photo Celia showed the writer at their first meeting.Credit…Bruce Bernard


The photograph is a black-and-white print, taken by the photographer Bruce Bernard; it lives in a box of keepsakes near Celia Paul’s bed, a metal cot in a bleakly empty room with bare boards on the floor and water stains on the walls and ceiling. There are no decorations or furnishings, other than a chair in the far corner, where Celia sits, and a small stained chaise against the opposite wall that is offered to me. The room next door — Celia’s studio — is its mirror image, except that the floor and walls are encrusted with the rippling geological strata of dried paint. The flat lies at the top of an old building directly facing the British Museum. It is reached by walking 80 stairs up from the street. Celia Paul still has her sheaf of hair — graying now, for she is almost 60 — that falls down past her waist: She is a kind of Rapunzel waiting in her tower for intervention from the world, though whether that intervention would represent rescue or invasion is hard to say. Across the road, the British Museum is continually thronged with tourists. Their noise washes through the stillness and silence of Celia’s flat, which is unchanged — other than by decay — since Lucian Freud bought it for her 37 years ago. The austere beauty of her work, its almost pulsating wordlessness and the richness of its sorrow, is kindred to this silence. An accordion player has been stationed on the pavement below since 8 o’clock that morning, producing the same maddening refrain over and over for the passing visitors.

On my first visit to the flat, I find that I do not believe in Celia Paul’s life. I regard it, suspiciously, almost as an act: It seems impossible to me that someone would choose — for choice it still then appears to be — to live so comfortlessly, so entirely without pleasure. I have an odd fantasy that somewhere concealed in these two rooms is a switch that if pressed would cause the walls to slide back and reveal a state-of-the-art home, with perhaps a handsome young neophyte in the kitchen preparing Celia’s lunch. Later I come to realize that what has unnerved me is to glimpse firsthand the very substance of which the artist-image is made, the absolute and unvarying disdain for convention, a moral and physical stance whose actual definition might be that it cannot be feigned. Later still, I wonder whether I might have been less suspicious of her “front” had she been a man. Why does it seem to me that for a woman to live in this way would require a strength that I can barely imagine?

Celia Paul was one of five daughters of Christian missionaries. Her father became bishop of Bradford; her sister Jane is married to Rowan Williams, former archbishop of Canterbury. Her parents’ vocation took them first to Trivandrum in India — where Celia spent her early childhood — and then to a religious community in Exmoor, in southwest England, from where the sisters were sent to boarding school. When Celia was 16, her school’s art teacher contacted Lawrence Gowing at the Slade School of Fine Art, in London, to inform him of her pupil’s exceptional talent. He invited her to visit with her portfolio, and the utterly cloistered and unworldly girl went alone for the first time to London. Gowing accepted her straight away and wrote to her father to persuade him to let her go. In her second year at the Slade, at 18, she encountered and was quickly seduced by the 55-year-old Lucian Freud, who was there as a visiting professor, though he later admitted to her that his motivation for involvement with the school was not so much to teach as to “get a girl.” That girl, Celia Paul, whose strange life and extraordinary gift ensured that her intensity and sense of election were matched only by her vulnerability, fell into a harrowing experience of love.

When I mention the Giacometti film to her, she gives a small smile. She recalls that she and her fellow Slade students used to kick and shove their canvases around the studio. There was no particular reason for these displays of machismo.

“We just thought it was what real artists did,” she says.

Cecily Brown at her studio in New York City.

Cecily Brown at her studio in New York City.Credit…Danna Singer for The New York Times

The shifting riverscape of the Hudson Valley, with its strangely cloudlike, mounded perspectives stretching away to the north, has the atmosphere of a gateway to wilderness. Just south of the vast bridge at Tarrytown lives the artist Cecily Brown. One more bend in the river, and the high-rises of the Bronx can be seen in the distance. The unmediated presence of humans in the physical environment is one subject of Cecily Brown’s work and is a source of its striking flavor of moral ambiguity.

In a world as susceptible to fashions, fads and misdiagnosed talent as the New York visual-arts scene in the 1990s, Cecily Brown made an unusual wunderkind. With paintings of the highest canonical refinement, Cecily’s art appeared to have tunneled up through the continuum of Western art history and emerged into the light-trailing, kaleidoscopic sense-memories of everything we had ever looked at. Like an explosion in a museum, recognizable fragments — from Masaccio to Goya to Manet to de Kooning — lay everywhere, still burning with color and life. Part of the impact, undoubtedly, came from her femininity and her youthful insouciance — a woman carelessly executing the male master strokes for her own mental reference — but her new and authentic virtuosity was unmistakable. Her work was quickly recognized and made the art world’s favorite transition into high-capital worth before she was 35. Success caused her neither to falter nor to swerve: On the contrary, she seemed not to notice or need it in the disciplined frenzy of her development over the following decade. The male gaze, somehow, had been politely but ruthlessly turned back on itself. Without exposing or denigrating herself, without anger or radicalism, Cecily Brown simply took aesthetic authority away from its usual custodians and into her own hands.

In Cecily’s studio, her works in progress stand against the walls: Their characteristic plenitude and motion are already recognizable. It is in her use of color that she creates, at first sight, her strong referential impact. Her palette passes swiftly through the palettes of other artists, invoking and then distancing herself from them in a continual forward movement. It is not only beauty but the memory of beauty — of how beauty has been achieved in the art we’ve looked at — that she is describing. The forward movement is surprising, for it is toward the untransfigured images of the everyday. Within these half-familiar surfaces are to be found the things we also recognize about our own world, its particular versions of violence, banality, injustice, greed, its uglinesses and most of all its human forms. In her cross-referencing, Cecily Brown raises questions about the morality and meaning of representation, and the moral status of beauty itself.

Now 50, she is the daughter of the talented, underrated British writer Shena Mackay. As a mother, Shena was at odds with the manners and mores of the suburban English world — with its preoccupation with keeping up appearances — in which the family lived. Cecily recalls an occasion on which her mother came to collect her from school wearing a long gold cape and platform shoes, apparently unaware of the impression she made. Brilliant and eccentric, a gregarious and generous woman, she found conformity taxing. Once, on a trip home, Cecily and her mother were riding in a taxi through London when they spied Boris Johnson on the street; Shena opened the window in order to shake her fist at him.

A figure in Cecily’s childhood was one of Shena’s oldest friends, the influential art critic and curator David Sylvester. Sylvester’s seminal writings on figures like Paul Klee, Francis Bacon, Alberto Giacometti and Lucian Freud had been central in formulating a cultural vision of and language for painting in the 20th century. When Cecily got older, he would sometimes take her to exhibitions; in his company, she met some of the towering figures of the contemporary art scene and heard intimate talk about many others. He showed a special interest in her emerging talent, an interest that was startling and half-overwhelming to receive from such a source. Their friendship continued through her teenage years. Though she saw him infrequently, his recognition was an important spur to her ambitions, which at the time seemed more or less impossible to attain. She struggled to put together the portfolio that would get her into the Slade, but was finally accepted. When she was 21, David and Shena came to her with an admission: She was their child; David, not the man she had thought of as her father, was her biological parent.

Her first reaction, Cecily says, was to think with a jolt of his praise of her ability: A shadow of doubt now stood over it. Did he actually think she was any good? Was it just because she was his daughter? But after a while, something else happened: She began to feel a connection, not exactly with David but through him; a connection to a landscape she had looked at, until now, from a distance. The monolithic figures in that landscape, like Bacon and de Kooning, were men David had known and deeply understood, men whose shocking work he had helped the world look at. For Cecily, David’s masculinity was the bridge to theirs: It was permission to come closer, to see herself in a new context, the context not of her youth or her femininity but of 20th-century art. She jokes that she felt as if she had suddenly inherited a roomful of fairy godfathers. David’s painter friends joked that he had got himself reincarnated as a brilliant young artist.

After finishing at the Slade, Cecily moved to New York, where David’s fame was considerably less. It was perhaps also a necessary attempt to gain distance from what was, after all, a personal bombshell. The world of New York artists was friendlier, less hierarchical and less impenetrable and competitive than London, where all anybody talked about were the Young British Artists and the death of painting. Cecily felt she could walk into a gallery and be taken at face value.

“In London, it was called a private view,” Cecily says. “In New York, it was called an opening.”

“Untitled (Blood Thicker Than Mud),” 2012, by Cecily Brown

“Untitled (Blood Thicker Than Mud),” 2012, by Cecily BrownCredit…Rob McKeever


On my second visit to London, Celia Paul shows me two small portraits she has made, one of Charlotte Brontë and the other of Emily. They are fierce, alive, inexpressibly poignant. While she was at the Slade, her parents lived in Bradford, where her father had been made bishop, in a house that looked toward Haworth and the Brontë parsonage. There is a haunting painting of Celia’s showing the parsonage as seen from the cemetery that stands adjacent to it, the house cut off by the graves with their awful jutting stones, so that it looks almost as though the dead are rising. Something of the privation and the will of the Brontës, their radically internalized femininity, belongs also to Celia Paul. They, too, had a clerical father in whom tyranny and authority were inextricable, who elevated their ideals while being careless of their bodies and minds. It is interesting for Celia now to think of her authoritarian father as fundamentally irresponsible. Why, she wonders, did he have all these children he didn’t have time for, daughter after daughter, one after the other dispatched to boarding school?

Celia rarely painted her father. It was her mother and sisters who became — and remain — her subject. Her breakthrough as a young art student was to draw intimate aspects of them in which her personal knowledge of them could be crystallized. At the Slade, the emphasis was on life drawing from a nude model: Celia did not see what she could be expected to learn from drawing someone she didn’t know.

“There was almost a sense of inhibition,” she says, “among Gowing and the other male artists, about using people known to them as painting subjects.”

She felt frustrated and isolated. Back at home for the holidays, Celia determined to do a large-scale painting of her mother. “I asked her to take her clothes off,” she writes in her new memoir, “Self-Portrait,” published this month in Britain. “I peremptorily instructed [her] about what position she should assume: She should lie on her back and raise one leg slightly. When she faltered and didn’t get the position just as I had wanted, I shouted at her. I was very cruel. She cried and said that I was treating her like an object. I responded irritably to her tears and said that she didn’t believe in me. She complied and continued to pose for me, day after day during the holidays.”

It was this same quality — the intensity of the personal — that had drawn Celia to Lucian Freud’s work. Shortly before meeting him, she saw an exhibition of his at a London gallery: There were portraits of his mother, of naked friends and daughters, sometimes awkward and almost ugly, executed in thick, urgent paint. Immediately they legitimized her own burgeoning vision. In her first class with him at the Slade, the 18-year-old showed him her work in the hope that he would recognize the affinity. He suggested that they leave the class and go for tea. He put Celia in a taxi, where he stroked her hair and throat while they drove to his house. When they arrived, the first thing Celia saw was Rodin’s statue of Balzac standing in the hall. Freud began to kiss her, and in her fright the young and entirely inexperienced woman insisted that she had to go. She decided to miss his next class, and he called her up afterward to ask why she hadn’t come. He invited her again to his house, and again she went.

“Once I was inside, he pressed me against the wall and started kissing me,” she writes in “Self-Portrait.” “He then pulled me onto the ground. … The doorbell rang and I felt very relieved. Lucian went to the intercom and a woman responded to his ‘Hello.’ He apologized to me and said he had forgotten that he had a visitor coming.”

A few days later, the by-now-almost-farcical situation was resolved: He invited Celia once more to his flat, and although “he seemed rather irritated … at last he was able to lead me to the bed. We became lovers. I was disturbed by the experience. My metabolism seemed subtly changed. I wondered if my mother would notice any difference in me. I stopped brushing my hair or washing my clothes. I felt that I had sinned and that something had been irreparably lost. I felt guilty and powerful. I felt that I’d stepped into a limitless and dangerous world.”

The story of the 18-year-old student’s relationship with the middle-aged artist has a horrifying inevitability to it: He was famous, promiscuous and vain, entitled, ambitious, greedy for life and status, and on Celia Paul he unwittingly or carelessly inscribed an especially tragic chronicle. The strangeness of her clerical childhood had left her with a number of qualities fatal to the situation: extreme innocence, an iron will, a hatred of her own body and an unusual capacity for both suffering and devotion. She discovered early on — his antics were the talk of the Slade — that amid the panoply of ex-wives and lovers and children both known and suspected, he was also continuing the chase among her art-school peers. Jealousy, humiliation and ordeals of agonized waiting and self-denial were haphazardly punctuated by encounters either tender or cruel. Socially odd and unconfident, rawly sensitive and isolated yet unusually committed and determined, she was a kind of modern-day Jane Eyre formulating her hopes and mental pain, her thwarted passion and humiliated femininity, around the mutually redemptive fantasy of a Mr. Rochester. But this Mr. Rochester was not to be humbled by righteous love.

On an easel in her studio stands Celia’s most recent painting of her sister Kate. As in the many other paintings Celia has made of the women of her family, Kate wears a white garment that is half-habit, half-shroud. Celia keeps these garments at the flat. She shows one to me. When her sisters climb the 80 steps to her door, they don it as a kind of renunciation of worldly identity. Partly it is to clarify and intensify Celia’s knowledge of them, but it is hard not to see it also as a statement of Celia’s own self-renunciation and the crippling of her femininity. She has a smock of her own, identical except for the fact that it is deeply stained all over with paint. To her, it represents her vocation as an artist; to me it symbolizes something harsher, which is the vulnerability of the female body to attack and the difficulty of assimilating the experience of objectification. The artist locates herself between power and victimhood, knowing that creativity has to survive the porousness that is the essence of artistic individuality. In Celia Paul, that struggle, the struggle to retain power over the things that have happened to her, has been a fight to the death.

“Untitled,” 2012, by Cecily Brown

“Untitled,” 2012, by Cecily BrownCredit…Rob McKeever


To what extent does the creative artist experience herself as gendered? Is Simone de Beauvoir’s famous epithet — that one is not born a woman but becomes one — more threatening in this context than in almost any other? Mary Gabriel’s recent book, “Ninth Street Women,” about the emergence of Abstract Expressionism in 1940s New York, offers the compelling theory that the arrival of European artists during World War II fundamentally altered the egalitarian ethos of the artistic community the young American painters had established: When the Europeans came, they brought the history of male perceptual authority with them, along with a predilection for alcohol and misogyny. The women — Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, among others — suddenly found themselves demoted to the roles of helpmate or muse, while the men — Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning — adopted a new arrogance. Decades later, for the young Cecily Brown, these battle lines remained so clearly drawn that they ran straight through her identity and destiny as a woman.

“When I was younger, people often remarked that I was ‘more like a guy,’ ” she says.

“Was this something I aspired to? I didn’t so much want to be a boy as to be the best possible girl-who-wants-to-be-a-boy. Why did people call me a guy? I felt female. I wasn’t trying to be male. I felt then, if not now, that male and female were more or less the same.”

As a young woman, Cecily relished her femininity: Like the male artists before her, sexuality was at the core of her emerging artistic identity; to be physically and sexually alive was an indispensable component of the drive toward visual expression.

“America shocked me with its daytime talk shows like ‘Ricki Lake’ and ‘Sally Jessy Raphael.’ Women there would talk about ‘giving’ sex as a reward or favor to their man. Or withholding it, of course. This was foreign to me, who loved men and their bodies.

“Desire itself was my driving force. Desire drives painting too. Sex was the closest thing to painting in the real world.”

Liking men, in a sense, is an aspect of resembling them; being “more like a guy” means being sexually free. Yet for a woman, the sexual contract involves the navigation of beauty and femininity, of her value as an object. To be the best possible girl-who-wants-to-be-a-boy, then, means to retain femininity while adopting male freedoms and ambitions: Does the illusion of equality in fact rest as much on the former as on the latter? Is the fear of being perceived as unfeminine actually greater for the ambitious woman than the fear of femininity as a constraint? Yet Cecily’s relationship to female beauty is more ambiguous than that: It is a current that runs deeply through her work, the question of what a woman does and is in being looked at and desired. In Cecily Brown’s pictorial world of art as life, that question has a burning cultural significance.

One of the most striking motifs in her oeuvre has been her interrogation of “Ladyland,” the 1968 photograph by David Montgomery that was used for the cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Electric Ladyland.” It is a studio shot of 19 young women, lavishly primped and made up but naked, all staring at the camera with a siren-like gaze, arranged together as a kind of buffet of passive female availability. It is the kind of photo a young girl would — and did — see lying casually around the house, whose shockingness would lie precisely in its tattered visibility amid the family record collection. What it says is that the female body is both everything and nothing: It is the mesmerizing spectacle of women’s complicity in their own debasement. The image is full of tragedy — these women believe they are being most valued in the very moment of their devaluation — yet it remains threatening for the suggestion of power contained within their willingness to expose themselves. The “Ladyland” women appear frequently in Cecily Brown’s work, sometimes looming at its center, sometimes as a flash of memory in a tumult of other images; at moments their stares and smiles are rendered with eerie clarity, at others smeared and smudged so that their forms are barely recognizable. What is always arresting in her use of the image is the power of her ambivalence, which never progresses or is resolved. It is a kind of staring competition between women, in which the strength of female honesty and indignation is pitted against the force of feminine illusion.

“I found those paintings very difficult to make, as in order to get away from the photographic source I had to commit some sort of violence or distortion to the image,” she says. “I worried that it could look like I was inflicting violence on the women. I realized I had to be free about the image, though, and not worry about what the paintings ‘said.’ I had always avoided painting a straightforward female nude. First, I always had a moral sense that I need the inhabitants of a painting to be doing something, not just being. Doesn’t need to be much. Masturbating, dancing, taking off a shirt, eating birds, licking their own shoulder, sitting on a swing, and if more than one figure, fighting or having sex. My figures had always been in motion. Dragging, pushing, jostling, manhandling, pulling, embracing. So these paintings were uncharacteristic because the figures were still. They began as fairly direct copies of the Hendrix ‘Electric Ladyland’ album cover. But as I went on with them, and they moved further away from the source, this violence and anxiety seeped in. I stopped work for a while, worrying that they were too brutal toward women. Eventually I decided it couldn’t matter, and that in fact the true subject might be my conflicted and complicated feelings about the ‘Ladyland’ image and the real women it showed, about women and womanhood, being gazed upon, being a gazer oneself, and maybe some misanthropy too — thinking about women’s culpability, and women of our time who have helped set us all back decades, like the Kardashians. The realization that these wouldn’t be simple positive depictions of women made me hesitate, in other words.”

Can a woman artist — however virtuosic and talented, however disciplined — ever attain a fundamental freedom from the fact of her own womanhood? Must the politics of femininity invariably be accounted for, whether by determinedly ignoring them or by deliberately confronting them? The latter is a fateful choice that can shape an artist’s life and work; but does the former — the avoidance of oneself as a female subject — inevitably compromise the expressive act?

“Family Group, 1980,” by Celia Paul

In the summer of her second year at the Slade, Celia Paul completed her first major painting, a large-scale depiction of her parents and sister called “Family Group, 1980.” Lawrence Gowing said it was the best painting ever done by a Slade student. Lucian Freud was also struck by it: “I’m thinking of your painting,” he repeatedly said to her. He decided to make his own large painting involving several sitters and used Celia as one of the models. Thus the element that bound Celia to him — their affinity as painters — was cemented while its boundaries were subtly redrawn. In the same period, he painted “Naked Girl With Egg,” in which Celia lies naked and disconsolate on a bed.

“I felt exposed and hated the feeling,” she writes in “Self-Portrait.” “I cried throughout these sessions. He tried to comfort me by telling me how much I pleased him. But I didn’t believe him, because the evidence of what he really felt was on the easel in front of me.”

What he felt, she believed, was disgust; or perhaps he had seen her own self-disgust and memorialized it.

Through her early 20s, Celia struggled in a bind: Her love for Lucian, burning and exclusive, must either suffer to remain an uncomplaining member of his retinue or starve; her artistic voice, gaining strength and authority under his encouragement and influence, was nonetheless checked by a fundamental inequality, because although he recognized and borrowed from her work, her status and appeal lay in her existence as one of his many subjects. “It was a very familiar hurt, being with Lucian,” she says, “where all the daughters were of similar age to me. It was home.”

The bishop, of course, was also the contemporary of his young daughter’s lover. The first, and only, time the two men met was when Freud took Celia and her parents to an expensive restaurant in Mayfair. The bishop asked if Freud would like him to wear his episcopal purple shirt for the occasion, and Freud was delighted. The two men got on famously, talking about art and literature, while Freud stroked Celia’s leg under the table.

“I thought it was a good occasion, on the whole,” Celia says. “But afterward my father said that he thought Lucian was the most selfish man he’d ever met.”

The bishop added that the meal had been a “jolly good nosh-up.”

In 1984, Celia became pregnant with Freud’s child: Freud, doting and delighted during the pregnancy, grew distant after the birth of Frank, their son. When he visited the hospital, he brought a bottle of Champagne as a present for the new mother. He was disturbed, she says, by the milk that had leaked onto her dress and asked her what it was. She sensed that it repelled him. Also, she was experiencing a powerful love for something — her baby — that was not him.

“He spoke of Rodin’s hurt when he no longer had complete control over his lover, Camille Claudel,” she writes. “He said that he understood how painful that feeling is.”

But in fact this momentary autonomy was merely the prelude to a much greater and more painful fragmentation. When Frank was only a few weeks old, the 24-year-old Celia left him to be looked after by her mother in Cambridge and returned to London, to Lucian and to work. What is one to make of these pivotal moments in female biography? For it is at such junctures that femininity — as condition and fate — is seen in its greatest distinctness from the male. Celia’s mother, recently widowed, was eager to look after the baby; Celia herself was penniless and in the throes of building a painting career that showed every sign of becoming important; the child’s father had no intention of participating in his care and even appeared to resent what attention the baby did command. These are all compelling reasons for what was, nonetheless, an act of incalculable self-harm. Celia gave away motherhood: Did she believe that by doing so she would hold on to Freud as a lover, thinking them in any case indissolubly bound by the fact of shared parenthood? Did she believe that her artistic star ran so parallel to his that her path to recognition and success would likewise remain unobstructed? She was mistaken on both counts.

“Painter and Model,” the last painting Freud did of her, shows Celia standing barefoot in her studio in a red dress filthy with paint, a naked man lying spread-eagle before her. Celia believes that “Painter and Model” is about power and desire — but whom do the power and desire belong to? The naked man stares unabashedly at the viewer, while Celia stands at the margin of the canvas, her eyes downcast. The painting is a shocking assertion of masculine ego and sexual primacy; the clothed woman is literally stared down, excluded. She has no easel or canvas, just a paintbrush she holds in her clasped hands.

In the 1990s, the London art world lurched away from figurative painting and set off in pursuit of the conceptual larkiness of the Young British Artists group. Freud, canny survivor, weathered the shift in tastes — “What a spiv!” Damien Hirst used to say of him, Celia recalls — but she did not. She struggled to rekindle the interest and recognition she had once enjoyed. Until that moment, she says, she hadn’t realized how she was seen in relation to Freud.

“My painting had always been recognized,” she says. “I thought the recognition belonged to me.”

Many of her peers had gone to America, where there was less hostility to painting, but Celia couldn’t join them. Her life of constant back and forth to Cambridge was becoming unsustainable. As Frank got older, Celia’s aging mother was finding herself increasingly unable to look after him, and Celia was suddenly responsible for an angry and upset young teenager. Her relationship with Freud, meanwhile, had slowly faded, until she realized it was no longer there.

“I found out that he was involved in a very serious relationship with a woman, and that the affair must have been going on for a long time. In fact, without my being aware of it, she was seen by most people as the main person in his life. I had been displaced.”

The flat opposite the British Museum, whose lease Freud bought for her and where she remains to this day, was her only security. Part tomb, part cell, part hermit’s refuge, it became her hiding place.

Cecily Brown is a mother: Her daughter is 10. It is the summer holidays, and the child plays with a friend in the garden of the Hudson River house, of which the windows of Cecily’s studio have a direct view. Cecily’s has been a story of extraordinary achievement through unrelenting discipline and hard work — she recently completed a major installation at the Metropolitan Opera House — but also of selflessness in the bonds of love. The example of her own mother, the writer who compromised both her career and the truth of herself in order to care for her children, stands before and behind her. What is she herself to do with the fact of motherhood? The studio and the garden, side by side and mutually visible, form an image of the dilemma and the tenuousness of its separations. Cecily is well aware that it is only money that has allowed her to create even that spatial distinction; but to the question of attention and where it is directed, she is as vulnerable as any workingwoman.

She tells me that in her youth, David Sylvester once remarked offhandedly to her that his best students at the Royal College of Art were usually women, who after leaving college were mostly never heard of again. He appeared somewhat mystified by the phenomenon; to Cecily’s ears, the words were as loud and panicking as a fire alarm. The best-possible-girl-who-wants-to-be-a-boy was confronted by a direct challenge to her identity: In the story of art, a story of merciless male excellence, a story littered with neglected or abandoned children and the neglected or abandoned careers of those women whose capacity for selfishness failed them, who was she?

“Reading Musa Mayer on being the child of Philip Guston” — the New York School painter — “was up there with David on the disappearing R.C.A. girls to add to my terror of having children,” she says. “Her ‘Night Studio’ was like a public health warning to artists not to procreate. But I was always on Guston’s side. I wanted to be Guston, whose wife brought him a flask of coffee and a parcel of sandwiches and left them outside the studio door.”

Being Guston, for a woman, can only ever be an approximation: It is to be on both sides of the image, to be two people, both worker and helpmate. Cecily tells me that when her future husband first came to her apartment, he remarked that it was the untidiest human dwelling he had ever seen. He now shares the work of domesticity with her, and the care of their child, but her struggle to care for herself in her early adult years is still fresh in her mind. Having left school with no qualifications, she was living on welfare and struggling to paint in a tiny bedroom in Norwood, unable to afford the proper materials. It took her three years just to get into art college. Her mother had no money; David Sylvester paid Cecily each week to clean his house. At 18, she met the painter and sculptor Maggi Hambling, the woman she credits with transforming her inchoate urges into a meticulous artistic vision, who let Cecily paint in her garage.

“Maggi was the first real painter I knew,” she says. “Having the garage to paint in made the hugest difference. The work that eventually got me into the Slade was all made there. Maggi was also the person who told me I had to show up every day to paint or it wasn’t worth it. Your painting is your best friend — there when you’re down as well as up, she’d say. She had a massive influence on me, from her fierce work ethic to her chain-smoking and Special Brew consumption.”

This Special Brew-drinking mother substitute gave Cecily the approximation that is “being Guston,” a way of life in which the niceties of femininity — both given and received — are relinquished in favor of a crucial but backbreaking freedom. After her move to New York, Cecily waited on tables for a living. Even after her breakthrough came, she found it hard to let go of the idea of herself as a hard-working, hand-to-mouth survivor. The privileges that come with success had no place in this image: In fact, they threatened it. Her work ethic — the closest she could get to “being Guston” — continued undiminished. But motherhood, that sphere of caution and taboo, that re-encounter with society at its most judgmental and conservative, is a more formidable adversary. When, at 40, she had a child, Cecily’s childhood memories of Shena became, all at once, more complex and double-edged.

“She was cleverer and more beautiful than all the other mums. And I was very proud of her books and the fact that she was a published writer. But I definitely saw firsthand what a struggle it is to survive and manage children and a creative life.”

Shena’s humor and charm belied, for her children, much of the difficulty of her existence. (Cecily recalls that Tammy Wynette’s version of the song “No Charge” was a running refrain in their household.) Yet the central precept of “being Guston” is quite the reverse: It is inviolable selfishness in the face of other people’s needs. Once a child enters the scene, the question of who makes the peanut-butter sandwiches assumes an adamantine importance.

“It’s only in retrospect that I see how wearing and difficult it must have been for Shena, to have to focus on sewing in name tapes or ironing and — horrors — shopping, cooking and cleaning when she could have been writing,” Cecily says. And the result of all this maternal labor and self-sacrifice? “I definitely felt I was given permission to be an artist. There was never any question. It was always much harder for me to picture being a mother.”

Can a woman artist — however virtuosic and talented, however disciplined — ever attain a fundamental freedom from the fact of her own womanhood?

Money, of course, rubs down some of these sharp edges. But to live as an artist in the world is to experience the truth of its cruelties and uglinesses, its illusions and self-deceptions. As a parent, Cecily now perforce moves in a sphere of ruthless subjectivity that her sharp eye can’t help recording: the excesses of New York parenting culture, the stark reappearance of gender roles, the inducting of infants into materialism, the replacement of play with technology. To stand out is the artist’s natural inclination, but to live those principles in parenthood is to be embroiled in a succession of battles. Hardest of all is the resurgence of male privilege in the family model: “Now, when I leave the studio early to see my child, it annoys me that my male equivalent might not be doing the same,” Cecily says. “He’s painting into the night. I see the male artist as less compromised by parenthood.”

The question then must be: Is the truth to be found by traveling through the compromise, with all the toil that entails, or by bypassing it? Cecily says that on her bad days she believes that should she ultimately fail to reach her zenith as a painter, it will be because she chose to be a good mother. I beg to differ: Motherhood is an inextricable aspect of female being; it is one thing to choose not to have a child at all, but if you can do both, be both, then surely the possibility of formulating a grander female vision and voice becomes graspable.

“You’ve hit on something that I hold back,” she concedes after a pause. “There might be a level of denial and fear in admitting what motherhood has done to and for me. The compartmentalizing has been how I’ve done it.”

She has never made work overtly about motherhood, she says, never even painted her daughter: It isn’t only the terror the subjects of motherhood and domesticity hold for any female artist; something of Shena’s concern for appearances, for how her child might be seen, afflicts her too. And the question of where she herself is in the work, she says, has come increasingly to trouble her. As an emerging artist she strenuously avoided the use of autobiographical material. Did she see it as a form of weakness that a woman artist can’t afford? Or is it David again, something precarious at the heart of her identity that she fears putting her weight on?

For now, Cecily’s is still a life of compartments. She tells me that as a young student, she used to visit one of Rembrandt’s self-portraits so often that she could almost hear the painting say, “Oh, you again,” when she turned up. I see in this story how the prospect of self-examination remains eternal in the life of an artist. Like Rembrandt’s self-portrait, it is an unending moment, held in a mirror. For Cecily Brown, I wonder what that mirror holds.

Celia Paul’s hands.

Celia Paul’s hands.Credit…Alice Mann/Institute, for The New York Times

In the Pret a Manger opposite the Cambridge train station, Celia Paul is weeping. It is a Monday morning; over the weekend, her son, Frank, who lives here, married his longtime partner, Masha, with whom he has two children. It was a great gathering of the clans — Celia’s sisters and their husbands, the Freud dynasty — for a celebration that lasted the weekend. Celia is exhausted and overcome by painful emotion, the feeling of insecurity she suffers when among Lucian’s family, though she says she is close to them. One reason she offers for the decline of her relations with Lucian was that he felt Frank didn’t show him the unquestioning admiration that his other children did, and Lucian believed Celia was to blame.

Good for Frank, I say.

“Oh, they all simply adore Lucian,” she says. “In their eyes, he could do no wrong.”

Lucian Freud died in 2011: For herself and Frank, Celia says, it was a kind of liberation. She changed galleries, and her work began to become visible again; Frank met the woman with whom he would be able to embark on his life as an adult and a parent. But the question of justice remains unanswered. Last year, the Tate showed a major exhibition, “All Too Human,” in which Celia’s work was included. The show centered on Freud and Bacon; Celia was presented as “influenced by” rather than “influences on.”

Over the weekend, with Frank’s house packed to the rafters, Celia slept on cushions on the sitting-room floor beside her little granddaughter, a child to whom she is deeply attached. The emotion of lying beside this beloved creature was such that Celia didn’t sleep: All night, her whole history with its extraordinary privations and passions seemed to churn within and around her as she lay in the darkness, with only this thread of love to hold on to. It has been her story and her fate, written for her before she even knew who or what she was.

Not long ago, Celia had an exhibition at the Huntington Library in Los Angeles. For her it was a crisis, the idea of leaving her tower and going to that big, brash city for the opening. But in the end she went and was lit up by the experience: A lovely painting of the California shore at dawn stands on an easel in her studio. I tell her she should go live there, let her hair down, buy a Mustang and roar around in it. Sell that prison of a flat: Despite its run-down condition, its location must make it worth a fortune.

She replies that she has absolutely no idea of what her real desires are. She has a partner with whom she often enjoys the pleasures of serene companionship, but at nearly 60, she remains trapped in her childish terror of men and their wants, in her shame of her own body, in the idea of exposure. “Which is ridiculous now,” she says, “but will get even more ridiculous as I get older.”

She is still the 18-year-old who gave her body in trauma, believing it was what she had to do to maintain proximity to an artist who seemed to hold the key to her development.

Can’t you throw him off your life? I say. Can’t you just leave the wedding and walk away?

She laughs a little and says she would be too frightened, too frightened of being hurt, too frightened of losing what she has. And of losing the conditions — silence, emptiness, stillness — that she has come to rely on in order to work.

“Besides,” she says, “I’m not sure the flat would sell for all that much. In fact, it gets cheaper as the weeks go by.”

I ask her what she means, and she tells me that the lease on her flat hasn’t got that far to run; despite its view of the British Museum, it’s virtually worthless. There are some 40 years to go, which by most calculations would be guaranteed to take Celia to the end of her lifetime. I wonder whether this was a calculation made at the time by the man who bought it, the exact and coolheaded formulation of his debt to her.

It is a moment in which I believe I hear the sound of the last laugh being had.


By Rachel Cusk. She is the author of several novels, including her “Outline Trilogy,” which concluded last year with “Kudos.” Her version of Euripides’ “Medea” was staged at the Almeida Theatre in London in 2015, and she recently published a book of essays titled “Coventry.”

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