Francis Bacon (28 October 1909 – 28 April 1992) was an Irish-born British figurative painter. He was a collateral descendant of the Elizabethan philosopher Francis Bacon. His artwork is known for its bold, austere, and often grotesque or nightmarish imagery.
Francis Bacon was born in Dublin to English parents. His father, Eddy Bacon, was a veteran of the Boer War who became a racehorse trainer. His mother Winnie (née Firth), an heiress to a steel business and coal mine, was noted for her outgoing, gregarious nature, a stark contrast to her highly-strung and argumentative husband. Francis was cared for by the family nurse, Jessie Lightfoot. A sickly child with asthma and a violent allergy to dogs and horses, Bacon was often given morphine to ease his suffering during attacks. The family shifted houses often, moving back and forth between Ireland and England several times during this period, leading to a feeling of displacement that would remain with the artist throughout his life. In 1911 the family lived in Cannycourt House near Kilcullen, County Kildare, but later moved to Westbourne Terrace, London, close by to where Eddy Bacon worked at the Territorial Force Records Office.
In 1926 the family moved back to Ireland, and Straffan Lodge. His sister, Ianthe (b. 1921), recalls that Bacon made drawings of ladies with cloche hats and long cigarette holders. Later that year, Francis was banished from Straffan Lodge following an incident in which his father found him admiring himself in front of a large mirror draped in his mother's underwear.
In the early Spring of 1927, Bacon was taken by Harcourt-Smith to the opulent, decadent, "wide open" Berlin of the Weimar Republic, staying together at the Hotel Adlon. It is likely that Bacon saw Fritz Lang's Metropolis during this time.
Bacon spent two months in Berlin, though Harcourt-Smith left after just one — "He soon got tired of me, of course, and went off with a woman...I didn't really know what to do, so I hung on for a while, and then, since I'd managed to keep a bit of money, I decided to go to Paris." Bacon then spent the next year and a half in Paris. He met Yvonne Bocquentin, pianist and connoisseur, at the opening of an exhibition. Aware of his own need to learn the French language, Bacon lived for three months with Madame Bocquentin and her family at their house near Chantilly. At the Château de Chantilly (Musée Condé) he saw Nicolas Poussin's Massacre of the Innocents, a painting to which he was often to refer in his own later work. From Chantilly, he went to an exhibition that was largely to inspire him to take up painting. His visit to a 1927 exhibition of 106 drawings by Picasso at the Galerie Paul Rosenberg, Paris, aroused his artistic interest, and he often took the train into Paris five or more times a week to see shows and art exhibitions. Bacon saw Abel Gance's epic silent film Napoléon at the Paris Opéra when it premiered in April 1927. From the autumn of 1927, Bacon stayed at the Paris Hôtel Delambre in Montparnasse.
Bacon was befriended by Geoffrey Gilbey, then the racing correspondent for the Daily Express, and for a time worked as his racing secretary. Gilbey had a house in Ormonde Gate, Chelsea. Bacon advertised himself as a "gentleman's companion" in The Times, on the front page (then reserved for personal messages and insertions). Among the many answers carefully vetted by Nanny Lightfoot was one from an elderly cousin of Douglas Cooper, at that time owner of one of the finest collection of modern art in England. The gentleman, having paid Bacon for his services, found him part-time work as a telephone operator in a London club and further sought Cooper's help in promoting Bacon's developing skill as a designer of furniture and interiors. Cooper also commissioned a desk from Bacon in battleship gray around this time.
In 1929 he met Eric Hall at the Bath Club, Dover Street, London, where Bacon was working at the telephone exchange. Hall (who was general manager of Peter Jones) was to be both patron and lover to Bacon, in an often torturous relationship.
He returned to Germany in 1930. A dramatic studio portrait taken of Bacon by Helmar Lerski, a Swiss photographer and cinematographer, probably dates from this visit. Bacon was later to tell Stephen Spender that he had been very impressed by the work of a photographer who had produced striking effects using mirrors and natural light filtered through screens, but that he could not remember the artist's name. Later that year Francis Bacon met Roy de Maistre, an Australian painter who was to become a close friend and mentor. De Maistre's circle included Graham Sutherland, Henry Moore and Douglas Cooper. A second exhibition was held between 4-22 November at 17 Queensberry Mews. Alongside de Maistre and Jean Sheppeard, Bacon showed four paintings and one print. Gouache (1929) may be the piece titled as A Brick Wall in the hand-list. Painting (1929–1930) (probably the work listed as Tree by the Sea) is Bacon's earliest surviving oil painting. Both were bought by Alden. The two other paintings (Self-portrait and Two Brothers) and print (Dark Child in an edition of three) are now lost.
Bacon left the Queensberry Mews West studio in 1931, and was not to have a settled space for some years. Bacon probably shared a studio with Roy de Maistre, about 1931/1932, at Carlyle Studios, (just off the Kings Road), in Chelsea. Portrait (1932) and Portrait (c.1931–1932) (the latter bought by Diana Watson) both show a round-faced youth with diseased skin (painted after Bacon saw Ibsen's Ghosts), and date from a brief stay in a studio on the Fulham Road. In 1932, Bacon was commissioned by Gladys MacDermot, an Irish woman who had lived in Australia, to redesign much of the decoration and furniture of her flat at 98 Ridgmount Gardens in Bloomsbury. Bacon recalled that she was 'always filling me up with food'.
In April 1933, he moved to 71 Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea Road from Ebury Street, where de Maistre had his temporary studio). The studio there was in a converted garage (like the Queensberry Mews West studio), a friend, the interior designer (and property developer) Arundell Clarke, had had his showroom there before moving on to Mayfair.
At the start of 1934, with the help of Arundell Clarke, who had just taken over the building, Bacon set up a gallery space in the cellar of Sunderland House, Curzon Street, Mayfair, with plans to deal in his own work and organize his own shows. In February 1934, Bacon held his first solo show, Paintings by Francis Bacon, of seven of his oil paintings and five or six gouaches, at the new Transition gallery. This was to be the only show at the Transition gallery. All but two gouaches of figures in flight (Composition (Figure) (1933) (gouache, pastel and pen and ink on paper) and Composition (Figures) (1933) (gouache, pastel and pen and ink on paper)) purchased by his cousin Diana Watson were afterwards destroyed by Bacon. Among these was the Wound for a Crucifixion, destroyed despite having a prospective purchaser in Eric Alden, and one of a very few that Bacon was to express regret at its loss.
Two studio interiors survive from 1934: Studio Interior (1934) and Corner of the Studio (1934) (purchased by Gladys MacDermot). Interior of a Room survives from circa 1935 (c.1933 in Alley/Rothenstein).
Bacon visited Paris in 1935, purchasing there a second-hand book on diseases of the mouth containing high quality hand-coloured plates of both open mouths and oral interiors, which both haunted and obsessed him for the remainder of his life. (Bacon had sinus problems since childhood and had undergone an operation on the roof of his mouth at some stage in the mid-1930s.) He also saw, for the first of many times, Eisenstein's The Battleship Potemkin in 1935, the scene of the nurse screaming on the Odessa steps later becoming a major theme in his paintings, with the angularity of Eisenstein's image often combined with the thick red palette of his recently purchased medical tome.
In the Winter of 1935-6, Roland Penrose and Herbert Read, making a first selection for the International Surrealist Exhibition (which was to be held in London from 11 June to 4 July 1936), visited his studio at 71 Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea, saw "three or four large canvases including one with a grandfather clock," but found his work "insufficiently surreal to be included in the show." Bacon claimed that Penrose had said to him "Mr. Bacon, don't you realize a lot has happened in painting since the Impressionists?" In 1937 (or late in 1936), Bacon moved from 71 Royal Hospital Road to the top floor of 1 Glebe Place, Chelsea, which Eric Hall had rented (and kept until 1943). Patrick White had moved to London, into a small flat in Ebury Street, in 1936, and, on meeting de Maistre in his ground-floor studio there, quickly fell in love with him. The following year, White moved to the top two floors of the building where de Maistre now had his studio, on Eccleston Street, and commissioned from Bacon, who was by now a friend, a writing desk (with wide drawers and a red linoleum top). White also bought the glass and steel dining table from Rab and Sydney Butler.
Only Figures in a Garden remains of paintings from 1936, however, a small sketch in black ink on lined paper, Biomorphic Drawing, in the collection of the Estate, at the Hugh Lane gallery, which resembles Abstraction (1936), may be a survivor from this year.
A small self-portrait, putatively dated to 1930 and identified with the self-portrait in the hand-list to the Queensberry Mews show, was exhibited at the Fine Arts and Antiques Fair, Olympia, London in 1998; however, it has been claimed on technical grounds that it dates from 1937 onwards (the canvas board on which it was painted was not available until then, although this has been disputed). Stylistically, the work fits best around the mid 1930s. The work has an unusual provenance (it was kept by Bacon until 1982 and then given away), but the attribution to Bacon is sound (although a detailed technical analysis remains to be done).
Figure Getting Out of a Car (c. 1939 - 1940) was painted here but is known only from an early 1946 photograph taken by Peter Rose Pulham (taken shortly before it was painted over by Bacon and retitled Landscape with Car). An ancestor to the biomorphic form of the central panel of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944), the composition was suggested by a photograph of Hitler getting out of a car at one of the Nuremberg rallies, (Bacon claims to have "copied the car and not much else.")
Man in a Cap, and Seated Man (recto) / Man Standing (verso) (now separated), both on composition board and from about 1943, are abandoned works. The composition of Man in a Cap derives from a picture of Joseph Goebbels that appeared in Picture Post. A photograph of Hitler from the same issue was the basis for Seated Man, and the more roughly painted Man Standing.
Now home to the National Art Collections Fund, the Millais house is just a short walk from the Victoria and Albert Museum, holder of a National collection of paintings by John Constable, whose oil sketches were much admired by Bacon. It was also at the V&A that Bacon would first discover and study the photographs of Eadweard Muybridge.
The April 1945 show Recent Paintings by Francis Bacon, Frances Hodgkins, Matthew Smith, Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland at the Lefevre gallery (then on New Bond Street, London) had two paintings by Bacon - Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) and Figure in a landscape (1945).
Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) is a key precursor to Bacon's later themes: the triptych format, the placement behind glass in heavily gilded frames, the open mouth, and the use of painterly distortion; the Eumenides, or Furies, in the Oresteia of Aeschylus and the theme of the Crucifixion (Figures at the Foot of the Cross was the first attempt at the title). Completed in oil paint and pastel on Sundeala fibre board within the space of two weeks, Bacon considered Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) to be the true start to his oeuvre - his masterpiece in the original sense. Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) was presented to the Tate Gallery by Eric Hall in 1953.
Untitled (1944) a variant of the right-hand panel of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) was shown at Francis Bacon: The Human Body, curated by David Sylvester, at the Hayward Gallery in 1998. A version of the left-hand panel: Study for a Figure (c.1944) was among the abandoned pictures in the 1964 catalogue raisonné.
A photograph of Eric Hall dozing on a seat in Hyde Park was the basis of the other painting in the Lefevre show, Figure in a landscape (1945) which was bought by Diana Watson and, in 1950, by the Tate Gallery (with the support of Graham Sutherland, then a trustee (1948 – 1954)).
Figure Study (1945) was destroyed; Figure Study I and Figure Study II are from 1945 or 1946. Study for Man with Microphones (1946) was shown at the Lefevre gallery, (British Painters Past and Present July - August 1946), and at the Anglo-French Art Centre, (Seventh Exhibition November – December 1946). Bacon was clearly unhappy with this picture: it was listed as an abandoned work in the 1964 catalogue raisonné, and was passed on to the Estate in 1992 as a slashed canvas.
At some point in 1947–1948, Bacon returned to make a second version, Study for Man with Microphones (1947-48) (shown February to March 1948 , at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Contemporary Painters (last (monochrome) plate in the catalogue by James Thrall Soby) as Study for Man with Microphones (1946); and from October to November 1962 in Francis Bacon at the Galleria d'Arte Galatea, Milan as Gorilla with Microphones (1945-46)).
Crucifixion (1933) (oil on canvas) was shown at the Summer Exhibition (July - September 1946) at the Redfern Gallery, 19/20 Cork Street, London, and bought by Sir Colin Anderson.
If Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) is Bacon's masterpiece, then Painting (1946) has a good claim to be his Magnum opus. Originally to be a painting of a chimpanzee in long grass (parts of which may be still visible), he then attempted to portray a bird of prey landing in a field. Bacon described it as his most unconscious work - the marks suddenly suggesting this image - at once magnificent and appalling.
Graham Sutherland saw Painting (1946) in the Cromwell Place studio, and urged his dealer, Erica Brausen, then of the Redfern Gallery, to go to see the painting and to buy it. Brausen wrote to Bacon several times, and visited his studio in early autumn 1946 and promptly bought the work for £200. (Painting (1946) was shown in several group shows including in the British section of Exposition internationale d'arte moderne (18 November - 28 December 1946) at the Musée National d'Art Moderne, for which Bacon travelled to Paris.)
Within a fortnight of the sale of Painting (1946) to the Hanover Gallery, with the proceeds, Bacon had decamped from London to Monte Carlo. After staying at a succession of hotels and flats, including the Hôtel de Ré, Bacon settled in a large villa, La Frontalière, in the hills above the town. Eric Hall and Nanny Lightfoot would come to stay. Bacon spent much of the next few years in Monte Carlo, short visits to London apart. From Monte Carlo, Bacon wrote to Graham Sutherland and Erica Brausen. His letters to Erica Brausen show that he did paint there, but no paintings are known to survive.
In 1948, Painting (1946) finally sold to Alfred Barr for the Museum of Modern Art in New York for £240. Bacon wrote to Sutherland asking that he apply fixative to the patches of pastel on Painting (1946) before it was shipped to New York. Painting (1946) is now too fragile to be moved from MoMA for exhibition elsewhere.
Bacon returned to London and Cromwell Place to paint, late in 1948. Head I was shown at the Summer Exhibition at the Redfern gallery from July to September 1948. By the end of 1948 Erica Brausen, who had advanced Bacon money for works, left the Redfern Gallery. Brausen had found private capital to start her own gallery in Mayfair. In the spring, a Bacon painting, presumably Head I, was shown at Erica Brausen's new Hanover Gallery (and was noted by Wyndham Lewis in an exhibition review of 12 May 1949). Held between 8 November and 10 December 1949 at the Hanover Gallery, Francis Bacon: Paintings; Robert Ironside: Coloured Drawings, was in effect, his first professional one-man show (Robert Ironside's watercolors were on an upper floor). A series of six paintings Head I to Head VI, with Study from the Human Body (1949) and Study for Portrait (1949) formed the core of the show with four other paintings by Bacon.
Bacon's paintings attracted the support of Wyndham Lewis writing in The Spectator: "Head I differs from Head II - Head VI in one important respect: while the first is painted on hardboard and dates from 1948 (or 1947-8), the rest of the series date from 1949 and are painted on the reverse of a (commercially) primed canvas."
Head II is, for Bacon, very thickly painted, this was one of very few instances when he had been able to 'rescue' a painting after it had become overworked and the weave of the canvas clogged (as happened with two abandoned works on canvas from the Head series, from 1949, also in the 1949 Hanover show). The arrow, or pointer, motif in Head II is taken from the book Positioning in Radiography by Kathleen Clara Clark, 1939.
Head VI was Bacon's first surviving engagement with Velázquez's great Portrait of Pope Innocent X (three 'popes' were painted in Monte Carlo in 1946 but were destroyed). The Cobalt Violet mozzetta, crimson in Velázquez's painting, may reflect Bacon's use of printed reproductions of the painting. Bacon later said that, although he admired "the magnificent color" of the Velázquez, Velázquez "wanted to make it as much like a Titian as possible but, in a curious way he cooled Titian".
An article by Robert Melville titled Francis Bacon appeared in the December 1949 – January 1950 issue of Horizon magazine (edited by Cyril Connolly). Melville placed Bacon in the context of European painting and film, comparing and contrasting his work with that of Picasso, Duchamp, Eisenstein and, in particular, Salvador Dalí and Buñuel's Un Chien Andalou. The piece, along with Reproductions of Paintings by Francis Bacon, was printed between a short story by James Lord and an essay on the Marquis de Sade by Maurice Blanchot).
Bacon met the painter and illustrator John Minton in 1948. Minton was soon to become a regular at 'Muriel's, as were the painters Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, Timothy Behrens, Michael Andrews, the two Roberts, Colquhoun and MacBride, and above all the sometime Vogue photographer, John Deakin. In 1950, Bacon met the art critic David Sylvester, then best known for his writing on Henry Moore and praise for Alberto Giacometti's work. Sylvester had admired and written about his work (first writing about Bacon for a French periodical, L'Age nouveau, in 1948) but had erroneously perceived it to be a form of Expressionism. Head I, in particular, at the 1949 Hanover Gallery show, was, for Sylvester, proof of Bacon's importance as a painter. John Minton left for the West Indies in September 1950. Aware that Bacon was in need of money, Minton asked him to take over his post as a tutor at the school of painting at the Royal College of Art. On condition that he did no formal teaching, Bacon agreed. So for three months, he was on hand to talk to the students for two days a week.
Painting (1950) and Fragment of a Crucifixion (1950) were among the works shown at Francis Bacon: Recent Paintings; Hilly: Paintings, at the Hanover gallery, 14 September - 21 October 1950. Also Study for Figure (1950) (destroyed) and Man at a Curtain (1949) - an abandoned work.
This series of three paintings after Velázquez were painted for the September 1950 Hanover gallery exhibition. The exhibition was advertised as Francis Bacon: Three Studies from the Painting of Innocent X by Velázquez but the series was withdrawn before the start of the show by Bacon. In November 1950, after Bacon had gone off to South Africa, the Hanover gallery offered on his behalf Study after Velázquez (1950) to the Arts Council, for the Festival of Britain show Sixty Paintings for '51. On his return in May, Bacon again withdrew the painting before it was shown, although it is in the catalogue to the exhibition. Study after Velázquez (1950) and Study after Velázquez II (1950) were sent to his art supplier for the frames and stretchers to be reused. Bacon apparently believed them destroyed.
Study after Velázquez (1950) and Study after Velázquez II (1950) were rediscovered carefully rolled-up at Bacon's art supplier in September 1998 (and shown at the Tony Shafrazi gallery). Study after Velázquez II (1950) (also known as Untitled (Pope) (1950)) is an abandoned work. Study after Velázquez III (1950) is destroyed (but was photographed). In January 1951 Bacon was featured in World Review in The Iconoclasm of Francis Bacon by Robert Melville (describing Study after Velázquez (1950) seen at the studio and on the destruction of the three paintings in the series of studies after Velázquez; Fragment of a Crucifixion (1950) and Man at a Curtain (1949) are shown in monochrome).
Study for Nude Figures (1950) (also known as Untitled (Crouching Figure) (1950)), and Figure in Frame (1950) (also known as Untitled (figure) (1950-1)), were among the abandoned paintings found in storage after the painter's death. Figure in Frame (1950), in particular, is a compellingly beautiful wreck, with thin dry-brushed paint on raw linen over a spectral smear and scrapes of oil paint.
By 1950, Bacon's affair with Eric Hall had come to an end - he no longer appears on the electoral register with Bacon and Jessie Lightfoot at 7 Cromwell Place - but he was to remain a loyal patron, friend and supporter. During November 1950, Bacon visited his mother in South Africa. This suited his asthma better than spending winter in London. Bacon was impressed by the African landscapes and wildlife, and took photographs in Kruger National Park. On his return journey he spent a few days in Cairo, and wrote to Erica Brausen of his intent to visit Karnak and Luxor, and then go via Alexandria to Marseilles. The visit confirmed his belief in the supremacy of Egyptian art, embodied by the Sphinx. He returned in the Spring of 1951.
On 30 April 1951 Jessie Lightfoot, Bacon's old nurse, died at Cromwell Place. Bacon was gambling in Nice when he learnt of her death. Lightfoot was Bacon's closest companion and had joined him in London on his return from Paris, and had lived with him and Eric Alden at Queensberry Mews West, and with him and Eric Hall at the cottage near Petersfield, in Monte Carlo and at Cromwell Place. Stricken Bacon sold the 7 Cromwell Place apartment.
Pope II (1951) was actually painted first in the 1951 series of three popes (P. II, P. I, P. III) based not so much on Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X, but on a photograph of Pope Pius XII being carried on a sedia gestatoria through a fan vaulted room in the Vatican. (The series was hung as a triptych at the 1962 Tate retrospective.) The January 1952 Magazine of Art article by Sam Hunter: Francis Bacon: The Anatomy of Horror, places Bacon in a British context, of Sutherland, Wyndham Lewis and Sickert (and even, in passing, Aubrey Beardsley). The article also reproduced two photographs Hunter had taken, in the Summer of 1950, of Bacon's photographic source material; Hunter had found the tables of the 7 Cromwell Place studio littered with newspaper clippings, magazine illustrations and reproductions torn from art books, he had arranged them to put the most images in frame and photographed them in situ.
In 1964, Bacon began a relationship with 39-year-old Eastender George Dyer, whom he met, he claimed, while the latter was burgling his apartment. A petty criminal with a history of borstal and prison, Dyer was a somewhat tortured individual, insecure, alcoholic, appearance obsessed and never really fitting in within the bohemian set surrounding Francis. The relationship was stormy and in 1971, on the eve of Bacon's major retrospective at the Paris Grand Palais, Dyer committed suicide in the hotel room they were sharing, overdosing on barbiturates. The event was recorded in Bacon's 1973 masterpiece Triptych, May-June 1973. In 1974, Bacon met John Edwards, a young, illiterate, Eastender with whom he formed one of his most enduring friendships.
Bacon died of a heart attack on 28 April 1992, in Madrid, Spain. He bequeathed his entire estate (then valued at £11 million) to John Edwards. Edwards, in turn, donated the contents of Francis Bacon's chaotic studio at 7 Reece Mews, South Kensington, to the Hugh Lane gallery in Dublin. Bacon's studio contents were moved and the studio carefully reconstructed in the gallery. Additionally draft materials, perhaps intended for destruction, were according to Canadian Barry Joule bequeathed to Joule who later forwarded most of the materials to create the Barry Joule Archive in Dublin with other parts of the collection given later to the Tate museum.
The tiny and cramped nature of Bacon's London studio and apartment were subjected to some critical analysis in Aida Edemariam's recent piece in The Guardian. She claims Bacon being frequently locked screaming for hours in a cupboard as a young boy, by a nanny, formed the basis of his preference for working in cramped conditions and his unwillingness to work on a larger scale. The article states: "That cupboard," Bacon apparently said years later, "was the making of me.
On 14 May 2008, the Triptych, 1976, “a landmark of the 20th-century canon,” sold at Sotheby's contemporary art sale for €55,465 million ($86.28 million), a record for the artist at auction. Sold by the Moueix family, producers of Château Pétrus wines, it was bought by the Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich. The sale broke the 2007 record for his work of €34,212 million ($52.68 million). The triptych had remained in the same European collection since its 1977 purchase from a London gallery.
A major retrospective of Bacon's work opened on 11 September 2008 at Tate Britain, London. It is billed as the largest retrospective of his work ever mounted, containing around sixty of his works. In January 2009, it will travel on first to the Prado Gallery in Madrid, Spain, and then the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, "where it will end in the summer of 2009.