Illustrated companion

This is one of eight paintings made by Bacon in 1956 and 1957 inspired by a self-portrait by Vincent van Gogh, 'The Painter on the Road to Tarascon' of 1888. The Van Gogh was destroyed during the Second World War and Bacon knew it only from a colour reproduction. His use of such a source is typical of his practice in general of taking his point of departure for a painting from a photographic image of some kind. Usually these are photographs taken directly from life, but in addition to the Van Gogh series he has also made a famous series of paintings based on a reproduction of the 'Portrait of Pope Innocent X' of 1650 by Vel squez. The distancing effect of working from a reproduction enabled Bacon in both cases to recreate the original image in terms of his own painting, and to produce works which were simultaneously a homage to the master of the past and an expression of his own ideas and feelings.

It should perhaps be stressed that Bacon does not copy directly from his sources. Rather, the images which strike him forcibly enough for him to use them in his art take their place in his memory, and it is from there that they surface into his painting, often radically transformed, but always retaining some vivid quality of the original. In this case, the original Van Gogh shows the painter, carrying his painting equipment, walking in bright sunlight along a country road on the way to the site of his day's work. The figure of the artist appears in marked isolation in the centre of the composition, framed between two trees and seen against a brightly lit background of fields and sky. The road runs directly across the painting parallel with its bottom edge, adding to the geometric grid within which the figure of Van Gogh is held. Although he is walking across the painting from right to left, Van Gogh has paused in mid-stride to turn slightly and stare straight out at the spectator. In Bacon's painting the figure is much more stooped, appearing to look down at the ground as it trudges along, suggesting a sense almost of despair. The paint, however, is brilliant in colour and applied thickly and with great freedom, in a way not quite matched either before or after in Bacon's oeuvre, except in some others of the Van Gogh series. In this respect this work is an extreme example of a central and important characteristic of Bacon's painting, which is the remarkable balance he achieves between the purely abstract qualities of paint texture and colour and their representational function.

It is not known exactly why Bacon became so fascinated with this image of Van Gogh during 1956-7. He told the critic John Russell, 'Actually, I've always liked early Van Gogh best, but that haunted figure on the road seemed just right at the time ... like a phantom of the road, you could say.' From this it maybe speculated that at this point in his career Bacon felt some particular kinship with that great lonely genius who, a complete failure in his own lifetime, and a suicide, perhaps represents more than any other figure the isolation and anguish of the artist struggling to create in a hostile and uncomprehending world.

Much of Bacon's art has been seen as expressing isolation, the 'space frames' that appear around the figure in many of his early works having been interpreted in this way particularly. The grid-like composition of the original Van Gogh painting, isolating the figure, may have struck Bacon for this reason, and the 'space frame' in fact appears in another of the Van Gogh series.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.201