Francis Bacon

Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne


Not on display

Francis Bacon 1909–1992
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 813 × 686 mm
frame: 943 × 793 × 59 mm
Purchased 1966

Display caption

This is one of the many paintings Bacon made of his friend, the artist Isabel Rawsthorne. He preferred to base such works on photographs of the subject rather than work from life.Intimate knowledge of the sitter was also essential. ‘What I want to do is to distort the thing far beyond the appearance, but in the distortion to bring it back to a recording of the appearance’, he said.

Gallery label, May 2007

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Catalogue entry

Francis Bacon 1909-1992

Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne 1966


Oil on canvas 839 x 686 (33 x 27)
Inscribed on back of canvas in red oil paint ‘Portrat [sic] of Isobel [sic] Rawsthorne | 1966’ top left

Purchased (Grant-in-Aid), 1966

Purchased from the artist through Marlborough Fine Art Ltd, London, 1966

Francis Bacon: Recent Paintings, Marlborough Fine Art Ltd, London, March-April 1967 (7, repr. in col. p.25)
Henry Moore to Gilbert and George: Modern British Art from the Tate Gallery, Palais des beaux arts, Brussels, Sept.-Nov. 1973, as part of Europalia 73 Great Britain (79, repr. p.91)
60/80: Attitudes, Concepts, Images, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, April-July 1982 (4, repr. p.86)
Forty Years of Modern Art 1945-1985, Tate Gallery, London, Feb.-April 1986 (no number)
Francis Bacon: Retrospektive, Galerie Beyeler, Basle, June-Sept. 1987 (21, repr. in col.)
?Rosenberg & Stiebel, New York, March-June 1988 (no catalogue found)
Francis Bacon, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institute, Washington D.C., Oct.1989-Jan.1990, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Feb.-April, Museum of Modern Art, New York, May-Aug. (29, repr. in col.)
The Transformation of Appearance: Andrews, Auerbach, Bacon, Freud, Kossoff, Tate Gallery exhibition at Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia, Norwich, Sept.-Dec. 1991 (18, repr. in col. [p.7])
New Realities: Art from Western Europe 1945-1968, Tate Gallery Liverpool, April 1992-July 1995 (1: Turning to the Figure) (no cat. no., repr. [p.6])
Twentieth Century: The Age of Modern Art, Martin-Gropius Bau, Berlin, May-July 1997, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Jan.-April 1998 (108, repr. in col.)

Tate Gallery Report 1966-7, London 1967, p.18, repr.
John W. Nixon, ‘Francis Bacon: Paintings 1959-1979; Opposites and Structural Rationalism’, unpublished Ph.D thesis, University of Ulster, Belfast 1986, pp.137, 479n, 596 (no.248)
Philippe Dagen, Francis Bacon, Paris 1996, p.102, repr. p.103, pl.60 (col.)

H[ervé] V[anel], in Francis Bacon, exh. cat., Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 1996, p.160 (confused with Study of Isabel Rawsthorne, 1966, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris)

Derrière le Miroir (special Bacon issue), no.162, Nov. 1966, p.25 (col.)
Robert Melville, ‘Francis Bacon’, Studio, vol.173, no.888, April 1967, p.194 (col.)
Jerome Peignot, ‘Bacon’, Opus International, no.28, Nov. 1971, p.44
John Russell, Francis Bacon, London, Paris and Berlin 1971, 2nd ed. London and New York 1979, 3rd ed. 1993, p.106, pl.50
Lorenza Trucchi, Francis Bacon, Milan 1975, trans. John Shepley, London and New York 1976, pl.106
Michael Newman, ‘Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud’, Arts Review, vol.29, no.21, 14 Oct. 1977, p.627
Stephen Hackney (ed.), Completing the Picture: Materials and Techniques of Twenty-Six Paintings in the Tate Gallery, London 1982, p.120 (in raking light)
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, pl.37 (col.)
Michel Leiris, Francis Bacon, London 1988, pl.47 (col.)
‘Isabel Rawsthorne’ (obituary), Daily Telegraph, 29 Jan. 1992, p.21
Michael Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, London 1996, between pp.238 and 239
Wieland Schmied, Francis Bacon: Commitment and Conflict, Munich and New York 1996, [p.12], fig.2 (detail)

Abstract art is free fancy about nothing’, Francis Bacon told an interviewer three years before painting Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne, ‘one needs the specific image to unlock the deeper sensations, and the mystery of accident and intuition to create the particular.’[1] Of his current response he continued: ‘Now I want to do portraits more than anything else because they can be done in a way outside illustration ... it is a gamble composed of luck, intuition and order.’[2] Both the concentration on portraiture and the terms in which he couched its resolution are significant. Bacon’s subject was the human body but in the early 1960s he began to condense its vitality in the facial features, often isolated on small single canvases or panels of triptychs. The organisation of form within the constraints of ‘luck, intuition and order’ was a recurring theme.

Two of the ordering strategies employed by Bacon accounted for the size of canvas and the choice of subject. Most of the portrait heads measured 14 by 12 inches (355 x 305 mm), salient examples being the individual panels of Three Studies for Head of Isabel Rawsthorne, 1965 (Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection, Sainsbury Centre of Visual Arts, University of East Anglia).[3] The painter also limited himself almost exclusively to the portrayal of close friends: George Dyer, Lucian Freud, Henrietta Moreas, Muriel Belcher and one or two others. Isabel Rawsthorne was one of these; a model in pre-war Paris for André Derain and Alberto Giacometti, and subsequently wife of the composers Constant Lambert and Alan Rawsthorne, she was a notable stage designer and artist. The style of her View through a Window II, 1967 (Tate Gallery T07273), painted at the time that she was portrayed by Bacon, loosely reflects their contact.

Around 1961 Bacon reinvented his approach to portraits. In the preceding years he had regularly worked in the presence of sitters: amongst others who sat to him were David Sylvester, Robert Sainsbury (both during 1955), and Lisa Sainsbury (for eight portraits between 1955-7).[4] A glimpse of his method in 1960 is afforded by Cecil Beaton, who reported Bacon commenting: ‘The important thing is to put a person down as he appears to your mind’s eye. The person must be there so that you can check up on reality - but not be led by it, not be its slave.’[5] It appears that soon after - and it may be coincidental that Beaton’s portrait was destroyed as a failure[6] - Bacon found the presence of a sitter too intrusive. Instead he began working from specially taken photographs. According to Henrietta Moraes’s account of posing, the painter gave the photographer John Deakin detailed instructions of ‘the exact positions you must get into’.[7] By 1966, Bacon could explain to David Sylvester:

Even in the case of friends who will come and pose, I’ve had photographs taken for portraits because I very much prefer working from the photographs than from them. It’s true to say I couldn’t attempt to do a portrait from photographs of somebody I didn’t know. But, if I both know them and have photographs of them, I find it easier to work than actually having their presence in the room. I think that, if I have the presence of the image there, I am able to drift so freely as I am able to through the photographic image.[8]

Noting the importance of memory in summoning up the features, he explained further: ‘What I want to do is to distort the thing far beyond the appearance, but in the distortion to bring it back to a recording of the appearance.’[9] This process needed to be achieved in isolation, free from the inhibiting presence of the sitter, and was characterised as ‘the artificiality by which this thing can be brought back’.[10]

Bacon’s friendships facilitated this process which was repeated through a prodigious output. Five other works of Rawsthorne alone were included alongside Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne in his 1967 show.[11] After the earliest painting in 1964, Study for Portrait (Isabel Rawsthorne) (private collection),[12] he painted fourteen images of her up to 1970. The fact that all but two used the habitual qualification ‘study’ in the title suggests that the painter recognised in the Tate’s painting and in Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne Standing in a Street in Soho, 1967 (Nationalgalerie, Berlin)[13] some more definitive status or resolution. The sequence of works included five triptychs in which Rawsthorne was generally presented in two side views flanking a full face in the central panel; this was a frequent solution in the portrait triptychs and one which Bacon subsequently compared to photographic police records.[14] The Tate’s painting essentially follows the frontal view in the Rawsthorne triptychs, but is unusual in being painted on a canvas midway between the artist’s standard portrait and full sizes; this format was used for only one contemporary work.[15] In other respects it captures the essence of the portraits of this period. The activity and heavy paintwork concentrated in the head is sharply contrasted with the flat background, so that the application of paint served to focus the attention on the physical appearance.

Typically, Bacon used the reverse side of a primed canvas. His paint was ‘lean’ (containing little binding medium) and is now rather fragile.[16] The main features were anchored in a fairly orthodox arrangement, with lips, nostril and hooded eyes easily recognisable as Rawsthorne’s. They were established in black before the heightened flesh-colour was achieved by overlaying a dense white with vermilion applied with nylon gauze which left an impression of its texture.[17] The superimposition of blue, green and white redefined the eyes and forehead where scraping and combing is evident in the paint. This distortion culminated in explosions of white across the width of the mouth, a freedom controlled by the circular blob of black which fixed the chin at the centre of the canvas. The treatment of the neck extended this handling but the hair was thinly flecked in strokes of green, red and pale blue subdued with black. The clothing, controlled in pale blue, was sponged in broad dilute sweeps, which allowed the warmth of the canvas to show through and which served to establish the pyramidal rhythm of the portrait. In a concluding stage typical of Bacon’s practice, the background above the level of the shoulders was added after the figure was resolved; less typically a localised area of white priming had been applied which ensured the density of the flat black.[18]

The energetic painting suggests a psychological portrayal. No longer the anonymous individual of the 1950s paintings, the identification of the sitter seems to charge the subject with broader concerns. One observer suggested of Bacon’s series based on Rawsthorne: ‘Isabel got only champagne, but the portraits of her appear to have been painted to show the destructive consequences of too much of it.’[19] Distinct from this rather moralising tone, John Russell recognised a gauging of urban existence in Bacon’s contemporary paintings of Lucian Freud which he described as showing ‘homo Londoniensis’.[20] Rawsthorne was cast in such a guise in the single canvas Three Studies of Isabel Rawsthorne, 1967 (Nationalgalerie, Berlin)[21] and, more explicitly, in Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne Standing in a Street in Soho, of the same year. It is notable that she is the subject of these unusually complex works as a fictive actor in specific settings. In the case of the latter painting, this quality may derive from its relation to an undated photograph by John Deakin showing Rawsthorne in a shop doorway,[22] of which Bacon owned a typically dog-eared copy.[23] The painter frequently used the unflinching quality of Deakin’s work as a point of departure, but it is significant that he appears to avoid contemporary details in his painting, showing instead a car more appropriate to Rawsthorne’s pre-war life in Paris. The complex ‘tangle of ontological dimensions’[24] established by the interior with open door in the companion painting, Three Studies of Isabel Rawsthorne, has been read by Ernst van Alphen as indicative of the wider ‘power of the portrait to threaten subjectivity’[25] in Bacon’s work. In this context, the repeated rendering of particular likenesses takes on a further aspect in the struggle to attain ‘a recording of the appearance.’[26]

These questions were first touched upon by Michel Leiris in his introduction to the 1967 exhibition which included Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne. He wrote:

For anyone who wants to make a real portrait there is necessarily a conflict between these two necessities: on the one hand to suggest individual features - accidental and anecdotal - and on the other to create a work endowed with an existence of its own and therefore situated on a quite different plane from picturesque anecdote. Perhaps it is because this conflict between documentary precision and pictorial truth reaches its climax in the portrait, that when Bacon paints portraits, the art of painting which can, apparently, only exist for him in a state of high tension, becomes kindled to incandescence.[27]

In Leiris’s view, therefore, Bacon’s urgent paintwork achieved a balance between resemblance and pictorial resolution. The painter appreciated a convergence with the writer’s approach and read many of Leiris’s works (in the original French) soon after making his acquaintance in the mid-1960s. This is born out by Russell’s report[28] that Bacon marked a pertinent passage in which Leiris, writing on Baudelaire, identified the necessity of the accidental in securing the beautiful. Modifying the Surrealists’ recommendation of the juxtaposition of unrelated objects, Leiris declared: ‘What constitutes beauty is not the confrontation of opposites but the mutual antagonism of those opposites, and the active and vigorous manner in which they invade one another and emerge from the conflict marked as if by a wound or a depredation.’ [29] Bacon’s recognition of the coincidence between these views and the strategy of his own work is reflected in his choice of language in discussing portraiture: ‘I don’t want to practice before them [the models] the injury that I do to them in my work’.[30] A further measure is found in his 1971 gift to Leiris of - coincidentally - a Study of Isabel Rawsthorne, 1966 and a Self-Portrait, 1971 (both Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris),[31] which was followed by two further gifts to the writer.[32]

The pictorial ‘incandescence’ identified by Leiris had been placed in a longer historical context by Laurence Alloway. In his 1963 introduction to the artist’s first major retrospective in the United States, Alloway equated Bacon’s interest in the body with a residual Renaissance tradition and claimed that ‘his studies of transitional human movements flickering through the wrecked Grand Manner’ were a central theme.[33] Bacon’s repeated reworking of Velasquez reinforced this idea of an extension or parody of the Grand Manner. Sylvester hinted at another aspect in 1966. Responding to Bacon’s comment that ‘art is an obsession with life’, he suggested that the painter was ‘affirming the traditional hierarchy of subject matter’: history painting, portraiture, landscape and then still life. Bacon accepted but modified this hierarchy: ‘I would say at the moment, as things are so difficult, that portraits come first.’[34] Although this was evidently a personal statement, he was also aware of the concern with portraiture in the work of younger painter friends such as Auerbach and Freud.

Despite the establishment of his reputation by 1962-4 through major exhibitions[35] and books,[36] Bacon’s work continued to attract criticism. This became rather more measured than the horror that had greeted his earlier work. One reviewer of his Parisian exhibition in late 1966 could still remark upon ‘smoked-ham motifs interrelated by art-nouveauish curves’, but was more penetrating in discussing the single-minded trajectory of Bacon’s career as ‘a path remarkable for its straightness and lack of investigative curiosity’.[37] Two years later no less an adversary than the American critic Clement Greenberg observed: ‘The discrepancy between the impact and substance in Bacon does not altogether compromise his art - at least not yet - but it does make him something less than the major artist he presents himself as being.’[38] Such an acute sense of the artist’s self-promotion was elsewhere combined with a grand overview. Remarking of some works ‘I can watch him putting his pictures together’, Greenberg elaborated:

In others I behold the cheapest, coarsest, least felt application of paint matter I can visualize, along with the most transparent, up-to-date devices - but I shouldn’t say ‘others’: I see all this in every picture of his I know of since the early fifties, in the ones that hook me as well as the ones that don’t. Bacon is the one example in our time of inspired safe taste - taste that’s inspired in the way in which it searches out the most up-to-date of your ‘rehearsed responses.’ Some day, if I live long enough, I’ll look back on Bacon’s art as a precious curiosity of our period.[39]

Such criticism was circumscribed by wider adversarial comparisons between American and British (or European) art, as well as being symptomatic of the divide between the critic’s formalist theories and the artist’s reliance upon the figure. Nevertheless, Greenberg’s assessment was a salutary reminder of the fragility of the reputation which gathered around Bacon after his 1962 Tate retrospective. In these terms the ‘up-to-date devices’ might be seen as a contemporary skim on the ‘inspired safe taste’ of portraiture which dominated Bacon’s output in the 1960s (to his considerable commercial benefit); as another hostile American critic put it: ‘the figure is patently what he begins with, a point of departure from which he goes nowhere at all’.[40] The painter himself argued that he pursued ‘appearance’ somewhere between abstraction and illustration; contrasting photography with painting, he spoke to Sylvester in 1966 of needing to ‘trap this living fact alive’.[41] He continued with the fine distinction: ‘the texture of a photograph seems to go through an illustrational process onto the nervous system, whereas the texture of a painting seems to come immediately onto the nervous system.’[42] Michel Leiris, writing of Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne Standing in a Street in Soho, would acknowledge the risks involved:

a canvas of this kind is, first and foremost, a space in which something occurs, takes place, or comes into being in a sort of ‘happening’ which, in the last analysis, is none other than the revelation of the presence aimed at in all Bacon’s works, and without which the overtly manual activity from which it results would remain null and void.[43]

The sense of ‘presence’ suggests something beyond the appearance which Bacon himself insisted upon as the target of his portraits. The repeated investigation of the features of a handful of close friends seems to have been the surest way of springing the ‘trap’ that he set in such works.

Matthew Gale
February 1999

[1] Michael Peppiatt, ‘From a Conversation with Francis Bacon’ in Cambridge Opinion (Special Issue: Modern Art in Britain), no.37, Jan. 1964, p.48
[2] Ibid.
[3] Repr. Francis Bacon, exh. cat. Tate Gallery, London 1985, [p.83], pl.44 (col.)
[4] Respectively Man Drinking, 1955, private collection, repr., Ronald Alley, Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné and Documentation, London 1964, [p.199] no.99; Portrait of R. J. Sainsbury, 1955, Sainsbury collection, repr. ibid., [p.201], no.101; Sketch for a Portrait of Lisa, 1955, Sainsbury collection, ibid., p.100, repr. [p.204] no.109
[5] Richard Buckle (ed.), Self-Portrait with Friends: The Selected Diaries of Cecil Beaton, 1926-1974, London 1979, p.324
[6] Ibid. p.326
[7] Henrietta Moraes, Henrietta, Harmondsworth 1995, p.71
[8] 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, p.38
[9] Ibid. p.40
[10] Ibid.
[11] Francis Bacon: Recent Paintings, Marlborough Fine Art, London, March-April 1967
[12] Repr. Francis Bacon, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1985, [p.82], pl.43 (col.)
[13] Repr. ibid., [p.85], pl.52 (col.)
[14] Sylvester 1993, p.86
[15] Study for a Portrait, 1966, repr. John Russell, Francis Bacon, London, Paris and Berlin 1971, 2nd ed. London and New York 1979, 3rd ed. 1993, p.83, pl.35
[16] Tate Gallery conservation files
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid.
[19] James Lord, Giacometti: A Biography, New York 1985, p.454
[20] John Russell, Francis Bacon, London, Paris and Berlin, 1971, 2nd ed. London and New York, 1979, 3rd ed, 1993, p.87
[21] Repr. Francis Bacon, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1985, [p.86], pl.54 (col.)
[22] Isabel Rawsthorne, 1960s, repr. Robin Muir, John Deakin: Photographs, Munich, Paris, London 1996, p.52
[23] Repr. Wieland Schmied, Francis Bacon: Commitment and Conflict, Munich and New York 1996, p.183
[24] Ernst van Alphen, Francis Bacon and the Loss of Self, London 1992, p.152
[25] Ernst van Alphen, ‘The Portrait’s Dispersal: Concepts of Representation and Subjectivity in Contemporary Portraiture’, in Joanna Woodall (ed.), Portraiture: Facing the Subject, Manchester and New York 1997, p.246
[26] Sylvester 1993, p.40
[27] Michel Leiris, ‘What Francis Bacon’s Paintings Say to Me’, translated by Sonia Orwell, Francis Bacon: Recent Paintings, exh. cat., Marlborough Fine Art, London 1967, p.23
[28] Russell 1993, p.88
[29] Michel Leiris, Brisées, Paris 1966, p.120, quoted in A[gnès Angliviel de] L[a] B[aumelle], ‘Francis Bacon’, Donation Louise et Michel Leiris: Collection Kahnweiler-Leiris, exh. cat., Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1984, p.14 and translated in Russell 1993, p.89
[30] Sylvester 1993, p.41
[31] Study of Isabel Rawsthrone, repr. Francis Bacon, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1985, [p.88], pl.48 (col.); Self-Portrait, repr. ibid., [p.127], pl.75 (col.)
[32] A[gnès Angliviel de] L[a] B[aumelle] 1984, pp.14-16
[33] Laurence Alloway, ‘Introduction’, Francis Bacon, exh. cat. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 1963
[34] Sylvester 1993, p.63
[35] E.g. Francis Bacon, Tate Gallery, London, May - July 1962 and Francis Bacon, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Oct.1963 - Jan.1964
[36] Ronald Alley, Francis Bacon, London 1964
[37] R.C. Kenedy, ‘Francis Bacon’, Art International, vol.10, no.10, Dec. 1966, p.24
[38] Clement Greenberg, ‘Poetry of Vision’, Artforum, April 1968, reprinted in John O’Brian (ed.), Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism,, vol.4, Modernism with a Vengence, 1957-1969, London 1993, p.287
[39] ‘Clement Greenberg; Interview Conducted by Edward Lucie-Smith’, Studio International, Jan. 1968, reprinted ibid., p.278
[40] Michael Fried, ‘Bacon’s Achievement’, Arts, vol.36, no.10, Sept. 1962, p.28
[41] Sylvester 1993, p.57
[42] Ibid., p.58
[43] 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, p.34


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