This medium-size oil painting by the British artist Francis Bacon features an oval-shaped mass of red, white and green strokes of paint set against a black background. The title of the work and the presence of what appear to be shoulders and a collar below the oval suggest that the painting is a portrait. Although the oval, which may represent the sitter’s face, is mostly painted in an expressive, abstract way, facial features are suggested by a thick white line of paint underneath a streak of green that may represent eyes and eyebrows, and below this are two thinner white streaks that resemble lips. Thick, hair-like red-brown lines of paint ascend from the top of the oval, and red and white curves at either side of the head seem to form ears. When experienced in a gallery setting, viewers can see the thickness of the paint on the surface of the canvas, which gives the work a three-dimensional, sculptural appearance.
Bacon created this painting in his studio in South Kensington, London, in 1967. As the title suggests, Study for a Head of Lucian Freud depicts Bacon’s friend, the fellow British painter Lucian Freud. Although the title implies that the work is a study for another portrait, possibly titled Head of Lucian Freud, Bacon did not make a further work directly connected to this one. In keeping with his practice at the time, Bacon painted Freud not from life but from a photograph of the sitter that he commissioned from the photographer John Deakin specifically for this purpose. Bacon preferred to paint portraits in this indirect manner, considering this method to be more representative of the ways in which individuals comprehend one another visually in a photographic age. He stated in 1966
I think one’s sense of appearance is assaulted all the time by photography and by film. So that, when one looks at something, one’s not only looking at it directly … Through the photographic image I find myself beginning to wander into the image and unlock what I think of as its reality more than I can by looking at it.
(Quoted in Sylvester 1975, p.30.)
Bacon’s choice to use a photograph for this work rather than paint from life also stemmed from his feeling that to paint a sitter in this abstract way, removing elements of their appearance in a manner that makes them unrecognisable, might be upsetting for the sitter to witness. He stated in 1966 that with such portraits he wanted to
distort the thing far beyond the appearance, but in the distortion to bring it back to a recording of the appearance … If I like them [the sitter], I don’t want to practice before them the injury that I do to them in my work.
(Quoted in Sylvester 1975, pp.40–1.)
Bacon and Freud were first introduced to one another by the artist Graham Sutherland in 1945, and following this they began to meet almost daily in the Colony Room members’ club in London. Bacon made his first painting of Freud in 1951, but it was much later, in 1964–71, that Freud sat regularly for Bacon. Study for a Head of Lucian Freud was completed in this period, during which Bacon created a total of fourteen oil paintings of his friend, many of them similar in style to this work owned by Tate. By the mid-1970s Freud and Bacon had become notorious rivals following an argument surrounding the acceptance of state honours, and thereafter they ceased painting one another altogether.
By the time Bacon created Study for Head of Lucian Freud he was a critically acclaimed artist, having exhibited his work regularly at the Marlborough Gallery in London from 1960 onwards, and in 1964 the first monograph on his work had been published. The book was written by Sir John Rothenstein, who was then director of the Tate Gallery, along with Ronald Alley, then Keeper of the Modern Collection at Tate. According to the art historian Andrew Brighton this monograph was an indication of Bacon’s stature at that time since it was ‘the kind of publication usually reserved for the distinguished near dead or dead artist’ (Brighton 2001, p.13).
David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon 1962–1979, London and New York 1975, pp.31–2.
Andrew Brighton, Francis Bacon, London 2001, pp.13, 37.
Francis Bacon: Study for Head of Lucian Freud: Supplemental Catalogue to Post-war and Contemporary Art Evening Auction, Christie’s, London 2014, pp.16–17, 23–49.