Intimate Melancholy

Celia Paul in the Contemporary Art Scene

By Lynn Nguyen


[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n a studio overlooking the British Museum in Bloomsbury, Celia Paul would stand on paint-splattered floors – herself donning a paint-encrusted dress – and get to work at her easel, observing and painting her mother settled in a chair by the window. It would be silent; as Paul added brushstrokes to her canvas, her mother Pamela would pray. Paul, being the fourth of five sisters, would also have her siblings sit for paintings.

Primarily illustrating her mother and sisters – and later on, self-portraits – Paul depicts the close connections between her subjects and herself. Paul’s portraits evoke intimate melancholy – her subjects’ expressions are quiet but powerful in contemplation, amid simple backgrounds of muted colors. Even Paul’s seascape and landscape paintings exhibit a sense of the personal – she calls herself an “autobiographer.”

Born in India in 1959 to Christian missionary parents, Paul and her family moved to England after she contracted a serious illness; she recovered shortly after the move. When Paul started attending a boarding school at age 11, painting became the means through which she acquired privacy; “Art became everything,” she says in a 2015 interview with writer Hilton Als. “The activity of painting seemed to connect me more directly to my inner life.”

By age 17, Paul enrolled in the Slade School of Art, and during her studies in 1978, she first met artist Lucian Freud, a visiting tutor. She tells Als, “I felt an immediate connection to him. I had recently seen an amazing exhibition of his portraits of his mother…I knew that he only worked from people he knew and/or loved. This felt liberating to me because it was so opposite to the method of the Slade tutors.” The two became romantically involved for 10 years, and Paul became the subject of several of Freud’s paintings while also exploring her own artistic projects. She painted her family in the London studio and presented her first solo exhibition in 1986.

Paul completed one of her paintings, a depiction of her sisters around their mother, after the death of her father in 1983. Titled “Family Group,” the sisters lean against one another on a bed, seeming to protect their mother from her grief; although somber, the whites and reds, as well as the light shining into the room from the left, imbue the grey setting with energy. In a 2018 piece for the Financial Times, Paul compares the painting to Géricault’s “The Raft of the Medusa.” She writes, “They don’t know how to navigate their way. My father was an authoritative man and he made all the decisions. My mother was guided by him in everything. Now she had to make her own way.” The Paul daughters surround their mother in strength and support, their faces expressing a quiet determination. But Celia herself is missing from the painting.

Relations between Paul and Freud changed after she gave birth to his son Frank in 1984. In a 2018 interview with the New York Times, Paul recalls that she left Freud in 1988 because he had become “involved with someone.” The next decade was fraught with financial adversity; in the interview with Als, Paul notes, “Everyone was saying that painting was dead, and really believing it. It was a very difficult time for me. I felt unsupported and isolated.” Gender also played into the problem – being female in the male-dominated art world; Paul told the Financial Times in 2016, “You are supported until your mid-thirties, then you become less of a girl, more of a threat – at that point women get overlooked.” Amid competition between men, women get “left out of the ring,” Paul says. She manifested her struggles in her art, incorporating darker, more dreary colors such as in “My Mother and God.” The 1990 painting depicts her mother almost blending into the painterly background of dark brown and purple brushstrokes. Only the right side of her face is illuminated.

Eventually coming to terms with the isolation, Paul began making self-portraits. In one exhibition, she painted five self-portraits, in the same dimensions, and presented them in a line. It was a conceptual work of art – Paul notes that she wanted her image to be depicted as “part of a group rather than just myself individually.” In a 2016 Financial Times interview, she conceded, “I have always felt self-conscious looking in the mirror.” She only started to shed some of that self-consciousness in her fifties, as she explored her own perceptions of her image. Paul’s self-portraits, in keeping with the rest of her paintings, evoke inward sorrow – her figure receding into brown or grey backdrops, eyes lowered, calmly silent. In the same interview, Paul says, “There’s a sadness in my self, an intense melancholy, a stoicism in my regard. I’d like one day to put a bit of joy into it but it hasn’t happened yet.”

Part of this melancholy came with the death of her mother in 2015. Paul then painted “My Sisters in Mourning,” which in comparison to “Family Group,” is heavy with their mother’s absence. The four sisters sit in the same corner of the studio where Paul painted many portraits of their mother – a “haunted space,” Paul writes in the Financial Times. All the sisters wear identical long dresses, their drapery rather heavy, that blend in with the ashy wall. Each subject seeps into the other through blurred outlines, connected in their grief. Paul omits herself from “My sisters in Mourning” as in “Family Group” – she explains, “I would have needed to paint myself in a mirror in the background, and that would have disturbed the stillness; I needed this to be a very still image.” With hands folded in each of their laps, the sisters are in quiet contemplation. “I hope it’s acceptance,” says Paul. “I hope it’s about being at peace.”

Paul painted a seascape painting, “Shoreline” concurrently with “My Sisters in Mourning.” Paul’s current exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art showcases both paintings near one another. The sea painting reflects another side of Paul’s ruminations on her and her sister’s lives after their mother’s death. The ocean calmly flows; a gentle yellow light shines on the soft blue waves. The painting does not contain the heavy sense of pain and numbness as “Sisters.” Paul writes, “The water shows that there is actually a pattern in even the most dissolute dispersed chaos, there is order…the way that waves form and break and re-form: the pattern does, always, shape again.” This is a painting, Als notes, curating the Yale exhibition, of the “real-world being a heightened place – of exquisite beauty and torment.” The peacefulness of “Shoreline” contains a strong message of recovery – the sisters being able to ground themselves amid the sorrow. “If [Paul’s] mother is anywhere now, she’s in the sea,” Als says. Time passes – and the waves signify this movement – but is also held still in this moment, the same way memory is cherished.

The seascape, says Als, illustrates Paul’s and her mother’s “consciousness meeting somewhere in the middle, like letters sent and received, calling one another home, in an ever-expanding world.” These letters, of paint and canvas rather than pen and paper, convey Paul’s quiet power – through deep yet understated emotion, a haunting vulnerability, a sense of both pain and healing.

Lynn Nguyen ‘21 is a prospective English major in Berkeley college. Contact her at