So relentless is the chilling pressure they exert that it is difficult to know with what aspect of one's being -- it is not eyesight only -- one experiences the portraits of England's Lucian Freud. More than 80 of his oils go on view today at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. They stop you where you stand. A slowness fills the galleries, a slowness and a heaviness. It is as if gravity itself had somehow been increased.

You feel it in the drag of flesh, in the viscosity of blood, in the very weight of memory. Freud's pictures have a sense of time expanded, not easily explained. Anchored to the present, they seem to preexist the photograph. They have nothing of that jitter, that electronic flicker, that shivers at the surface of most recent works of art. They are solid to the core.

And disconcertingly alive. Their solidity is not the solidity of statues, but that of living, aging flesh. Their scale is surprising. Some are merely palm-sized. With one part of your mind you know that they are paintings -- you see their gilded frames and the process of their making, the tracks left in their thickish paint by Freud's stiff-bristled brush -- and yet these objects feel like people. They make you sense the heavy presence of an other, the weight of a warm body, the greasiness of skin, the heavy blood that pulses in that bluish vein.

Freud resists the camera (I have never seen his photograph). He does not hire models. He paints only his friends: people -- men and women, his children, wives and lovers -- with whom he's shared his life for years.

Some personal transactions between the painter and the sitter, some sense of masks discarded and intimacies shared, throbs in all his paintings. Among the most condensed is a small oil on a copper sheet, a 1952 portrait of his colleague, the painter Francis Bacon. The critic Robert Hughes, who wrote the catalogue introduction, says rightly of this picture:

"It is as naked as a hand."

The Hirshhorn's exhibition, organized by the British Council, is Freud's first American retrospective. It will be seen at only one venue in this country. It was offered to Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art. It was offered to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Both museums turned it down. Are the curators there blind? The much applauded works of other figurative painters, say, the big, blank portraits done by Alex Katz, or soulless Philip Pearlsteins, or the scrawls of David Salle, seem effortlessly demolished, the way a swinging wrecking ball destroys sheets of plasterboard, by the paintings now on view.

"Lucian Freud," writes Robert Hughes, "is the greatest living realist painter."

I tend to be suspicious of such claims of primacy. But I have no doubt -- nor will those who see his exhibition -- that Lucian Freud belongs, and is aware that he belongs, to the aristocracy of the masters. Rembrandt and Frans Hals, Ingres, Bacon and Ce'zanne, are not the only giants summoned by his pictures. Another, not a painter, but an artist of a different sort, haunts this exhibition like a sort of household god.

The painter is the grandson of Vienna's Sigmund Freud.

It is not only blood that the two men share.

Sigmund Freud -- who won the Goethe Prize for literature -- was as much a poet as he was a scientist. Time has tarnished his medical researches, but has not dimmed the glow of his German prose. The silence and duration of his psychoanalytic method -- with its sharings and its patience -- is paralleled in eerie ways by painter's delvings. At the end of both transactions, the analyst's with his patient, the portraitist's with his sitter, the soul is brought to light, laid bare.

Both men became the focus of distinguished coteries. Jung and Adler and the rest orbited around Sigmund; Lucian has distinguished satellites as well. The duke and duchess of Devonshire, Baron Thyssen-Bornisza and others he portrays, and to whom he sells his pictures, are members of his circle. (Lucian Freud never has been willing to paint commissioned portraits; he portrays only people he regards as his own). His allegiances touch high and low. His carpenter, his bookie, his mother and his children are among his sitters.

So are many of his women. Lucian Freud has been married twice, the first time to the daughter of Sir Jacob Epstein, and thereafter to a beauty who, following their parting, would marry poet Robert Lowell. The painter, those who know him say, has had many lovers since.

His "sexual history," writes Hughes, "is long and labyrinthine." In London it is said that Lucian Freud prefers long, complex relationships with women of high breeding: the daughter of the bishop, the daughter of the peer, women who become not just his friends and sitters, but the mothers of his children -- he has many. Some say dozens, some say scores. "The number I have heard is 55," says one Londoner who knows him. The painter lives alone.

His studio is his world, as was Sigmund's consultation room. Neither flinched before the sexual (just look at Lucian's many, extraordinary nudes -- they could not be more naked). Both men, in their work, sought a bonding with an other, a bonding of a density few human beings achieve.

The painter's sitters do not flirt, and do not hide or preen. Hughes, writing about "Naked Girl," 1966, says that she is "painted with an inquisitorial and even-handed completeness, a will to see, to engage, but not to peep, that is the mark of {the painter's} temperament." Freud's paintings "bypass decorum while fiercely preserving respect."

Look closely at the pictures. Pick a detail to study -- that whippet's pale, translucent skin, or the baron's elegant, acquisitive, strangely clawlike hands. Something in the paint itself, in the way that it's been dragged and pulled, and something in the way the the flesh has been examined, as if from all sides -- and something in the anxiousness that haunts these living pictures -- is wholly of our time.

And past-connected, too. Sigmund filled his study with antiquities from Greece and Rome and Egypt. The painter also makes us see that, as he explains, "art, after all, derives from art."

Freud's paintings have no flaring hues. He likes to quote what Ingres said to a student who had asked what is most beautiful in art: "A color adjacent to another which most closely resembles it." Some shadowing, some sunlessness, some acknowledgment of suffering, pulsates in his art, as if the space between colors had been compressed.

He was born in Berlin. His childhood was cultured, prosperous, advantaged -- if such words can be applied to a German Jew. He was 10 when he reached Britain. Few immigrants to England can feel a closeness to the peerage, but Lucian, thanks to Sigmund, was highborn nonetheless.

His paintings -- of that soiled sink, that burst upholstered couch (it is as close as Lucian comes to a sort of Sigmund joke) -- suggest Bohemian seediness, a life of low degree. But do not be misled. That is not how he lives. He owns a cast of Rodin's "Balzac," he serves champagne from crystal, Huntsman's makes his suits, he drives a Rolls. He is said not to have a telephone; he choses whom he sees. He comprehends his rank.

Britain, rather quietly, has produced since World War II a number of the best portrait painters alive. Think of Bacon and Frank Auerbach (both of whom are portrayed in this exhibition). Think of David Hockney's warm and giving spirit, and of the rich intelligence of R.B. Kitaj.

No Englishman has shown us human beings so well as Lucian Freud. His retrospective will travel to Paris, London and Berlin after it leaves Washington. See it often while it's here. The show, curated for the British Council by Andrea Rose, closes Nov. 2.