Francis Bacon 1909-1992
Born to an English family in Dublin on 28 October 1909, Francis Bacon was the second of five children of Christina Firth, a steel heiress, and Edward Bacon, a race-horse trainer and former army officer. His childhood, spent at Cannycourt, County Kildare, was blighted by asthma from which he suffered throughout his life. With the outbreak of war in 1914, his father took the family to London and joined the Ministry of War; they divided the post-war years between London and Ireland. Bacon repeatedly ran away from his school in Cheltenham (1924-6). After his authoritarian father, repelled by his burgeoning homosexuality, threw him out of the family home for wearing his mother’s clothes, Bacon arrived in London in 1926 with little schooling but with a weekly allowance of £3 from his mother.
In 1927 Bacon travelled to Berlin (frequenting the city’s homosexual night-clubs) and Paris. He was impressed by Picasso’s 1927 exhibition (Galerie Paul Rosenberg) and began to draw and paint while attending the free Academies. Returning to London in the following year, he established himself (and his childhood nanny Jessie Lightfoot) at Queensbury Mews West, South Kensington. He worked as a furniture and interior designer in the modernist style of Eileen Gray and exhibited his designs there in 1929. These were featured in the Studio1 before he shared a second studio show with the painters Jean Shepeard and Roy de Maistre (Nov. 1930). An early patron was the businessman, Eric Hall, who would became Bacon’s lover and supporter (c.1934- c.1950). As well as designing, Bacon continued to paint with de Maistre as an important influence and practical guide on matters of technique. The results showed the impact of Jean Lurçat and Picasso, and a Crucifixion shown at the Mayor Gallery in 1933 was juxtaposed with a Picasso in Herbert Read’s Art Now and bought by the collector Sir Michael Sadler. In the following year, the painter organised his first solo exhibition in the basement of a friend’s house (Sunderland House, Curzon Street) renamed ‘Transition Gallery’ for the purpose, but it was not well received and he responded by destroying the paintings. His works were rejected by Read for the International Surrealist Exhibition (1936), but Bacon and de Maistre helped Hall to organise Young British Painters (Agnew and Sons, Jan. 1937), which included Graham Sutherland, Victor Pasmore and others.
With the coming of war in 1939, Bacon was exempt from military service and released by the ARP on account of his asthma. He spent 1941 painting in Hampshire, before returning to London where he met Lucian Freud and was close to Sutherland. From these years emerged the works which he later considered as the beginning of his career, pre-eminently the partial bodies of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944 (Tate Gallery N06171) which was first shown at the Lefevre Gallery (April 1945) to unease and acclaim alike. Bacon became central to an artistic milieu in post-war Soho, which included Lucian Freud, Michael Andrews, the photographer John Deakin, Henrietta Moraes, Isabel Rawsthorne and others. On Sutherland’s recommendation Erica Brausen secured the painter’s contract with the Hanover Gallery and sold Painting 1946 to the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1948. Bacon gambled away the results at Monte Carlo and, as homosexuality remained illegal, his lifestyle in London and France was tinged with the illicit.
The early 1950s saw a period of success and rootlessness following the death of Jessie Lightfoot. Bacon’s first post-war solo exhibition included the first of many works inspired by Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1650 (Galleria Doria Pamphili, Rome) and showed his use of characteristic enclosing frameworks (Hanover Gallery, December 1951 – February 1952); it was followed by his New York debut (Durlacher Gallery, October 1953). The paintings of Popes, which established his reputation, alternated with those of contemporary figures in suits who were similarly entrapped; however, following a trip to Egypt and South Africa (1950) a lighter tonality emerged in paintings of sphinxes and of animals. During this period, Peter Lacey became Bacon’s lover and inspired homoerotic images of wrestlers derived from Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs in Animal Locomotion (Philadelphia 1887), Animals in Motion (London 1899) and The Human Figure in Motion (London 1901); the photographs became a habitual source, just as the theme of sexual encounter persisted. In Italy in 1954, Bacon avoided seeing Velazquez’s Pope Innocent X in Rome and his own paintings at the Venice Biennale, where he shared the British pavilion with Ben Nicholson and Freud. Two years later, he visited Lacey in Tangiers, and met the American writers William Burroughs and Paul Bowles, and the painter Ahmed Yacoubi; Bacon subsequently returned regularly until Lacey’s death in 1962.
The exhibition of paintings after Van Gogh (Hanover Gallery, 1957) marked the sudden departure from the preceding monochromatic works towards heightened colour. Despite their success, in the following year the painter transferred dealer to Marlborough Fine Art; they paid off his growing gambling debts, mounted larger exhibitions and ensured that he destroyed fewer canvases. In 1961, Bacon settled in Reece Mews, South Kensington, where he remained for the rest of his life, and in the following year the Tate Gallery organised a major touring retrospective which saw the resumption of his use of the triptych which would become his characteristic format. At that time he recorded the first of the interviews with the critic David Sylvester which would constitute the canonical text on his own work.
In 1963-4, Bacon’s international reputation was confirmed with his retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (1963) and by the publication of Ronald Alley’s catalogue raisonée. He refused the Carnegie Institute Award (1967) and donated the Rubens Prize towards the restorations following the flood of Florence. On the eve of Bacon’s large retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris (1971), his long-time lover George Dyer committed suicide and this event left haunting echoes in ensuing paintings. However in 1974, John Edwards became the painter’s companion and model.
In the 1970s Bacon travelled regularly to New York and Paris, where he bought a pied-à-terre, and publications helped to establish the popular image of his work as a reflection of the anxiety of the modern condition. International exhibitions became more wide-ranging: Marseilles (1976), Mexico and Caracas (1977), Madrid and Barcelona (1978), Tokyo (1983). They reinforced the perception of Bacon as the greatest British painter since J.M.W. Turner. His works from this period were dominated by the triptych, but the figures grew calmer and were set against flat expanses of colour. In isolated images without a human presence, an animal power was retained in segments of dune and waste land. The exhibitions culminated in a second Tate retrospective (1985, travelling to Stuttgart and Berlin), and shows in Moscow (1988) - a sign of post-Communist liberalism - and Washington (1989). On a visit to Madrid in 1992, Bacon was hospitalised with pneumonia exacerbated by asthma and died on 28 April.
Ronald Alley and John Rothenstein, Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné and Documentation, London 1964
John Russell, Francis Bacon, London, Paris and Berlin 1971, 2nd ed. London and New York 1979, 3rd ed. London 1993
David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1975, revised as The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, 1980, 3rd ed. 1990, 4th ed. as Interviews with Francis Bacon, 1993
David W. Boxer, ‘The Early Work of Francis Bacon’, unpublished Ph.D thesis, John Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland 1975
Hugh M. Davies, Francis Bacon: The Early and Middle Years, 1928-1958 (Ph.D thesis, Princeton University, 1975), New York and London 1978
Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: logique de la sensation, Paris 1981
Michel Leiris, Francis Bacon, face et profil, Paris, Munich and Milan 1983, trans. John Weightman as Francis Bacon: Full Face and in Profile, Oxford 1983
Dawn Ades and Andrew Forge, Francis Bacon, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1985
Francis Bacon, exhibition catalogue, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institute, Washington D.C. 1989-90
Daniel Farson, The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, London 1993
Andrew Sinclair, Francis Bacon: His Life and Violent Times, London 1993
Rudy Chiappini (ed.), Francis Bacon, exhibition catalogue, Museo d’Arte Moderna, Lugano 1993
Michael Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, London 1996
Francis Bacon, exhibition catalogue, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 1996
Francis Bacon (28 October 1909 – 28 April 1992) was an Irish-born British figurative painter known for his bold, grotesque, emotionally charged, raw imagery. He is best known for his depictions of popes, crucifixions and portraits of close friends. His abstracted figures are typically isolated in geometrical cage like spaces, set against flat, nondescript backgrounds. Bacon said that he saw images "in series", and his work typically focuses on a single subject for sustained periods, often in triptych or diptych formats. His output can be broadly described as sequences or variations on a single motif; beginning with the 1930s Picasso-informed Furies, moving on to the 1940s male heads isolated in rooms or geometric structures, the 1950s screaming popes, and the mid-to-late 1950s animals and lone figures, the 1960s portraits of friends, the nihilistic 1970s self-portraits, and the cooler more technical 1980s late works.
Bacon took up painting in his late 30s, having drifted as an interior decorator, bon vivant and gambler. He said that his artistic career was delayed because he spent too long looking for subject matter that could sustain his interest. His breakthrough came with the 1944 triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, which sealed his reputation as a uniquely bleak chronicler of the human condition. From the mid-1960s he mainly produced portraits of friends and drinking companions, either as single or triptych panels. Following the 1971 suicide of his lover George Dyer, his art became more sombre, inward-looking and preoccupied with the passage of time and death. The climax of this later period is marked by masterpieces, including his 1982's "Study for Self-Portrait" and Study for a Self-Portrait—Triptych, 1985–86.
Despite his bleak existentialist outlook, solidified in the public mind through his articulate and vivid series of interviews with David Sylvester, Bacon in person was highly engaging and charismatic, articulate, well-read and unapologetically gay. He was a prolific artist, but nonetheless spent many of the evenings of his middle age eating, drinking and gambling in London's Soho with like-minded friends such as Lucian Freud (though the two fell out in the mid-1970s, for reasons neither ever explained), John Deakin, Muriel Belcher, Henrietta Moraes, Daniel Farson, Tom Baker, and Jeffrey Bernard.
After Dyer's suicide he largely distanced himself from this circle, and while his social life was still active and his passion for gambling and drinking continued, he settled into a platonic and somewhat fatherly relationship with his eventual heir, John Edwards. The art critic Robert Hughes described him as "the most implacable, lyric artist in late 20th-century England, perhaps in all the world" and along with Willem de Kooning as "the most important painter of the disquieting human figure in the 50's of the 20th century." Francis Bacon was the subject of two Tate retrospectives and a major showing in 1971 at the Grand Palais. Since his death his reputation and market value have grown steadily, and his work is among the most acclaimed, expensive and sought-after. In the late 1990s a number of major works, previously assumed destroyed, including early 1950s popes and 1960s portraits, reemerged to set record prices at auction. In 2013 his Three Studies of Lucian Freud set the world record as the most expensive piece of art sold at auction.
Artist as subject
Film and audio
For the eleventh mix in our series, London-based producer Visionist sees light through the darkness of Francis Bacon's Study ...
Francis Bacon’s friend and assistant recalls the time he accidentally destroyed one of the artist’s finished works
Television presenter and writer Dawn O'Porter takes us on a whistle-stop tour of nudity in art, from its origins ...
Christopher Nolan on how Bacon’s paintings inspired the Joker in The Dark Knight
Narrative art is art that tells a story
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Cages, cells and small rooms – the notion of the contained space has been used to great effect by artists over ...
To coincide with Francis Bacon: Invisible Rooms opening at Tate Liverpool, we round up the key themes in the show ...
One of Tracey Emin’s best known and most controversial works, My Bed, first made in 1998 and once in ...
The Gallery of Lost Art is an immersive, online exhibition that tells the fascinating stories of artworks that have disappeared ...