Leon Kossoff b. 1926


With Anthony d'Offay Gallery, London
Susan Kasen and Robert D. Summer Collection, Connecticut
Private Collection, USA
Private Collection, UK


1988, London, Anthony d'Offay Gallery and New York, Robert Miller Gallery, Leon Kossoff, 9 Sept. - 8 Oct. 1988
1994, Glasgow, McLellan Galleries and London, Royal College of Art, An American Passion: The Susan Kasen Summer and Robert D. Summer Collection of Contemporary British Paintings, 16 Dec. 1994 - 5 March 1995 and 26 Oct. - 3 Dec. 1995
2019, London, Piano Nobile, Leon Kossoff: A London Life, 1 March - 22 May 2019, cat. no. 22


Leon Kossoff, exh. cat. Anthony d'Offay Gallery, 1988 (illus.)
Patricia Seligman, ed., An American Passion: The Susan Kasen Summer and Robert D. Summer Collection of Contemporary British Painting, Glasgow Museums and Royal College of Art, 1994, p. 136 (col. illus.)
Andrew Dempsey, Lulu Norman and Jackie Wullschlager, Leon Kossoff: A London Life, Piano Nobile, 2019, pp. 88-9 (col. illus.)
This work will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of Leon Kossoff's oil paintings:
Andrea Rose, ed., Leon Kossoff: Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil Paintings, Modern Art Press
Leon Kossoff was born in 1926 in Islington, London to a family of Russian Jews of Ukrainian descent. During his childhood he lived in several different areas of London including Shoreditch and Brick Lane. Having been evacuated from the capital during the Second World War, he returned to begin art school. Most notably he studied with David Bomberg, a figure rejected by the art establishment of his day but with a bold and unusual approach to draughtsmanship that inspired a generation of young artists. Often working in charcoal, Kossoff began depicting building sites around Blitzed London and close family and friends in darkly brooding portraits. From the late fifties, he used increasingly more oil paint in large-scale works derived from extensive drawing. This resulted in the thickly layered, instantly recognisable and unique style for which he is known today.

John Asleep of 1987 is an intimate portrait of one of the artist's most faithful models: John Lessore, a fellow artist, nephew of Walter Sickert and the son of Beaux Arts Gallery founders Frederick and Helen Lessore. John is a particularly significant figure as an embodiment of the artistic heritage Kossoff acknowledged. As his relative, John’s familial connection to Sickert (who arguably did more than any other artist to revolutionise the practice of figurative painting in the twentieth century) is mirrored in Kossoff’s claim to direct descent fomr the modern master having been taught by David Bomberg who was himself a student of Sickert.

John sat for Kossoff many times from the 1950s onwards. Man in a Wheelchair, 1959-1962 is one of the earliest major products of their close relationship. It shows Kossoff’s growing confidence with heavily applied oils, transforming his sitter into a vision of post-war anxiety. But in this later representation, John is seen in sturdier form with arms spread wide, sitting firmly within his chair which appears to have been robbed from him in Tate’s work. It shows the artist in complete mastery of his paints – their liquidity is maximised, and it is an exemplary display of his calligraphic carving motion, as though drawing through the paint, with his brush-head deeply buried in the viscous surface.

The construction of such a painting is a laborious task. First, Kossoff invested in arduous preparatory drawings observed from life. Then followed the gradual application of paint to support. Where he was not happy with his progress, the paint was scraped off, and the slow process began again. Often, as in other work by Kossoff as well as Lucian Freud, the sitter is shown asleep as a consequence of the sustained effort required to model through this time-consuming process. Kossoff also shared a habit for extended sittings with Frank Auerbach, and both men have often been paired due to their almost sculptural use of oil paint. One remarkable characteristic of Kossoff’s work is his distinctive drips of colour, which populate the surface of John Asleep and indicate his energetic painting style where motion and fluidity is prioritised.

Through this idiosyncratic technique, John Asleep demonstrates Kossoff’s contribution to a long history of portraiture. Other than a few years when he was an evacuee, the artist lived his entire life in London and throughout his childhood he visited the National Gallery. There, he was greatly influenced by old masters including Titian, Rubens, and Poussin, but above all Rembrandt, particularly his ‘Woman Bathing in a Stream’ (1654). The palette favoured by Kossoff during much of his career, typically of warm, earthy browns, recalls many of Rembrandt’s works which emerge out of dark surroundings, shimmering between leaden greys and deep hazel. John Asleep is especially associated with the Dutch master’s portraits which often show their sitters wearing their dishevelled age with quiet dignity. Sharing in this fascination with age, change and the passage of time, Kossoff simultaneously disrupts and exploits his inherited tradition of oil painting.

Change was an enduring and central concern for the artist. “Every time the model sits” he wrote, “everything has changed. You have changed, she has changed. The light has changed, the balance has changed. The directions you try to remember are no longer there and, whether working from a model or landscape drawings, everything has to be reconstructed daily, many, many times.” It is this sensitivity and his painterly technique, a technique so well demonstrated in the present work, that is Kossoff’s greatest legacy. He presents his sitter in an emphatically material form through a forceful and thorough exploration of his physical being. It is a pure and dedicated celebration the infinitely variable textures of oil paint and its capacity to hold tonal subtleties. With outstanding handling of light, colour and form, Kossoff presents an image rooted in artistic tradition while striding toward a contemporary vision of what painting from life can achieve.