A painter who has spent more than 4,000 hours the past six years portraying his own mother might seem fixated—especially if his name is Lucian Freud. "You can call it odd or art," says critic Lawrence Gowing of Sigmund's 55-year-old grandson. Gowing himself takes the latter view, noting that "it is more than 300 years since a painter showed as directly and as visually his relationship with his mother. And that was Rembrandt." Another London reviewer, William Packer, proclaims Freud "perhaps the most distinguished of our living painters."

Americans who possibly thought Whistler was the last word on the subject got a first good look at the Berlin-born Briton's work this month with his debut exhibit at Manhattan's Davis and Long gallery. The show comprised 17 paintings, including five of the nine he's done of Mum. Lucian—who has said, "My travels these days are never outwards, only inwards"—did not come over for the showing.

A tousled, often unshaven and unpredictable man, Freud avoids non-canvas communication, including telephones. His two daughters contact him by telegram. He frequents raffish all-night hack drivers' cafes and works in an untidy pad in Paddington. But he has also been known to lord it around London in a Rolls-Royce and dine at the plush restaurants of Belgravia. Both of his ex-wives and several of his girlfriends had titled parents. "My work is purely autobiographical," he once admitted. "I work from people whom I care about and think about." That at least gives some clarification of his relationship with mother Lucie, now 82, for whom he was named.

After the death of her architect husband Ernest in 1970, Lucie attempted suicide. Worried about her, Lucian began a daily ritual of breakfast à deux at a nearby patisserie, followed by a four-hour painting session. In all, Lucie has sat more than 1,000 times for the nine portraits.

In Freud's small studio (he has one room for daylight painting, a second for nocturnes) his subjects sit quietly while the artist, who never uses sketches, paints directly on canvas. He does nudes—including a startling one in the New York exhibit of a man holding a rat—mostly at night. Why? "Talking about how things are done is boring," has been his explanation. In any case, his output has been eloquent enough—though it adds up to only three or four portraits a year.

Freud, born to the youngest son of the father of analysis, began drawing at age 4. With the rise of Nazi anti-Semitism (Lucian witnessed the burning of the Reichstag), his family fled to London. There, at 17, he sold his first drawing, a self-portrait, to a magazine. Because he disliked formal schooling, he ran off to sea as a merchant sailor and later painted in Greece and Paris. He married Kathleen Epstein, daughter of the great sculptor Sir Jacob, in 1948, but after the birth of two daughters, now both London housewives, the marriage was dissolved. His second wife, Lady Caroline Blackwood, a Guinness heiress and writer, divorced him on grounds of "mental cruelty." Most of his subjects—which include many society women painted in the nude—remain anonymous. Says critic Gowing: "He's very conscious of how each person is locked up inside himself." He apparently reached that psychological insight on his own. Of his grandfather, Freud reports: "I have hardly read a word."