He had been a mainstay of postwar British art but he was either unknown or largely ignored in the rest of the world. Until, that is, the 1987 retrospective of his work mounted by the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington brought him front and center.

There was a figurative revival of sorts going on in the States during the 80s as the artworld took a step back from the brink it had been teetering on for over a decade. Artists like Eric Fischl and to a lesser extent Mark Tansey were nominal heads of this nascent flight back to quality. But it wasn't until the Hirshhorn's Freud retrospective that the movement had someone they could rally behind without hesitation. And they did. Not that a Fischl and a Freud had a lot in common beneath the surface (or on the surface for that matter), but the sheer authority of Freud's vision cleared a path for a new generation of painters in the realist tradition and showed that the expressive possibilities of the figure were far from either exhausted or irrelevant.

Within about a year following the '87 retrospective Freud went from "British portrait painter" to "the greatest living realist painter". Not a bad trick for a guy in his mid 60s at the time. Admirably he never succumbed to the temptation to believe his own press or wasted time basking in the spotlight. Instead, almost up to the time of his death in London on Wednesday he kept to his rigorous studio schedule and in doing so remained an example for countless younger artists.

A late self-portrait by Lucien Freud