Francis Bacon

Reclining Woman


Not on display

Francis Bacon 1909–1992
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1988 × 1416 mm
frame: 2188 × 1622 × 70 mm
Purchased 1961

Display caption

In spite of the title, the figure in this painting appears to have been originally intended as a man. The male genitalia were covered over with a thin layer of paint. Unusually, the figure was cut from another canvas and pasted onto this one, on which the background was painted. Male nudes appeared in many of Bacon's paintings. He may have accepted the misidentification of this figure as a way of disguising its implicitly homoerotic imagery at a time when homosexuality was illegal.

Gallery label, July 2008

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Catalogue entry

Francis Bacon 1909-1992

Reclining Woman 1961


Oil on canvas 1988 x 1416 mm(78 1/4 x 55 3/4)

Purchased from the artist through Marlborough Fine Art Ltd (Grant in Aid) 1961

Francis Bacon, Tate Gallery, London, May-June 1962 (80, repr.)
Francis Bacon, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Oct. 1963-Jan. 1964, Art Institute of Chicago, Jan.-Feb. 1964 (51, repr.)
Francis Bacon, Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Paris, Oct. 1971-Jan. 1972, Kunsthalle, Dusseldorf, March-May (36, repr. p.115)
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 (76, repr. p.90)
Francis Bacon: Paintings 1945-1982, National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, June-Aug. 1983, National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, Sept.-Oct., Aichi Prefectural Art Gallery, Nagoya, Nov. (18, repr. in col. p.45)
Francis Bacon, Tate Gallery, London, May-Aug. 1985, Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, Oct. 1985-Jan 1986, Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Feb-Mar.1986 (37, repr. in col.)
Francis Bacon: Paintings since 1944, Tate Gallery Liverpool, Feb. 1990-Jan. 1991 (no number, repr. in col. p.16)
A Ilha do Tesouro / Treasure Island, Centro de Arte Moderna, José de Azeredo Perdigão, Lisbon, Feb. - May 1997 (no number, repr. p.100)
Francis Bacon: A Retrospective, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Jan -March 1999, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, April-May, The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, June-Aug., Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Aug.-Oct. (35, repr. in col. p.121)

Tate Gallery Report 1961-2, London 1962, p.17
Ronald Alley, Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné and Documentation, London 1964, p.136, repr. pl.180
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculptures, I, London 1964, p.24
Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: logique de la sensation, Paris 1981, p.20, repr. pl.44 Lawrence Gowing, Francis Bacon: Paintings 1945-1982, exh. cat. National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo 1983, p.108
John W. Nixon, ‘Francis Bacon: Paintings 1959-1979; Opposites and Structural Rationalism’, unpublished Ph.D thesis, University of Ulster, Belfast 1986, p.107, 573, 584 (no.180)
Ernst van Alphen, Francis Bacon and the Loss of Self, London 1992, pp.172-4, repr. p.173, pl.108
Hervé Vanel, ‘L’imagination technique’, Francis Bacon, exh. cat. Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 1996, p.70, repr.
Fabrice Hergott and Hervé Vanel in Francis Bacon, exh. cat. Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 1996, p.237
Matthew Gale in Francis Bacon: Working on Paper, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1999, p.31, repr.

Anita Brookner, ‘Current and Forthcoming Exhibitions: London’, Burlington Magazine, vol.104, no.714, July 1962, p.315
John Rothenstein, The Tate Gallery, London 1962, p.262
Lorenza Trucchi, Francis Bacon, Milan, 1975, trans. John Shepley, London and New York, 1976, pl.68 (col.)
Wieland Schmied, Francis Bacon: Vier Studien zu einem Porträt, Berlin 1985, p.51, pl.63

A dry crusty layer of paint ineffectively masks the male genitalia of the figure in this painting which has, nevertheless, consistently been titled Reclining Woman. Curiously neither this discrepancy nor its consequences have been discussed in any depth, although David Sylvester - who sought to identify the figure as the artist’s - has asserted that ‘the body is androgynous, whether it has a penis or not’.[1] While inspection reveals the identity, it is reinforced when the painting is compared to two closely related but earlier works in which Bacon used the same unusual pose and a similar setting. Of these, Lying Figure no.1, 1959 (Leicester Museums and Art Gallery)[2] and Reclining Figure, 1959 (private collection)[3] are also clearly male, but in Lying Figure no.2, 1959 (private collection)[4] the sexual identity remains indeterminate. In the latter, the background is more reduced to horizontal bands than it is in the Tate’s painting (where a sofa is implied), whereas in the other paintings the figure is shown on a bed apparently resting its raised leg against the wall.

The two Lying Figure paintings were exhibited in early 1960,[5] and Alley notes that the second of these was painted during the artist’s period of preparation in St Ives (September 1959 - January 1960).[6] This concentration of effort reflected the fact that it was Bacon’s first show at the Marlborough Gallery, which he joined in October 1958;[7] they paid off his huge gambling debts, which he believed Erica Brausen and the Hanover Gallery would be unable to support, and in return required larger and more regular exhibitions.[8] The demand created by his debut there may have encouraged the production of Reclining Woman during the following year. According to Alley it was photographed on 27 February 1961;[9] it was acquired by the Tate in November and the artist confirmed that it had been painted that year.[10]

There are evident differences between Reclining Woman and the associated canvases of 1959. The working of the figure is dense and less fluent. It also betrays signs of uncertainty, most remarkably in the fact that it has been cut from another canvas and pasted onto its present support on which the background was painted. This drastic process - which was not unprecedented[11] - suggests that the artist reached a point of resolution in the body which was irretrievably spoiled by the original setting. He used the opportunity to change the right arm, which appears to have been first folded back to the chest but of which the outstretched portion was later achieved in the cutting of the canvas rather than in the paint. The contrast between surfaces presented an additional problem which Bacon met by exaggeration: the painting of the figure is a dense accumulation of colour while the setting is flat and thinly worked, and the two are clearly separated by an outline added on the new canvas to follow the cut edge. The passage of hair across this cut shows that further adjustment to the figure was made once the transfer had been completed. In this disjuncture, the artist seems deliberately to confront the lack of coherence between figure and ground for which David Sylvester believed he was seeking a solution at this time,[12] and which may respond to Clement Greenberg’s contemporary theories about the integrity of the picture plane.[13] In Reclining Woman, the result is an unusual pose, comparable to Rodin’s drawings of nudes, set against a background oddly reminiscent of Rothko’s contemporary colour field paintings. It is notable that a related pose (but with both legs bent back) and similarly Rothkoesque background were used in two watercolours, both entitled Reclining Figure (Tate Gallery T07353 & T07354), which Fabrice Hergott and Hervé Vanel[14] have been related to Lying Figure with Hypodermic Syringe, 1963 (private collection).[15]

The density of Bacon’s painterly technique allowed him to disguise imagery which was implicitly homoerotic. The ubiquity of the tradition of the female nude partially explains the mistaken identification of Reclining Woman, but the artist may have taken advantage of this ambiguity at a time when homosexuality remained illegal. Although he did paint female nudes, notably those derived from photographs of Henrietta Moraes, Bacon’s work was dominated by the male presence. In very few of his contemporary paintings was it signalled as sexually provocative: the frontal nude Seated Figure on a Couch, 1959 (private collection)[16] is passive, while the struggling couple in Two Figures in a Room, 1959 (private collection)[17] are of indeterminate sex. Even in Two Figures, 1953 (private collection)[18] and Two Figures in the Grass, 1954 (private collection)[19] the wrestlers derived from Muybridge’s photographs were sufficiently veiled to disguise their sexual activity. Bacon’s works, nevertheless, continued to carry signs for the initiated; thus, while the recumbent and exposed pose in the Tate’s painting has been seen as passively female, it carries a homoerotic nuance indicated by the suggestively phallic extension of the leg. Significantly, while taking it for an image of a woman, Ernst van Alphen has read the posture in the painting as ‘the embodiment of sexual desire’ and the single eye as fixing a confrontation with the viewer which counteracts the tradition of nude and voyeur in western art.[20]

Matthew Gale

February 1999

[1] David Sylvester, Francis Bacon, The Human Body, exh. cat. Hayward Gallery, London 1998, p.36
[2] Repr. Ronald Alley, Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné and Documentation, London 1964, [p.222] no.148
[3] Repr. ibid. [p.223], no.151
[4] Repr. ibid. [p.125], no.154 (col.)
[5] Francis Bacon: Paintings 1959-60, Marlborough Fine Art, London, March-April 1960
[6] Alley 1964, p.124
[7] Michael Greenwood, note to Erica Brausen, 17 Oct. 1958, Tate Gallery Archive.863
[8] Michael Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, 1996, pp.179-180
[9] Alley 1964, Appendix C, p.273
[10] Bacon, untraced note to the Tate Gallery, 6 Dec. 1961, cited in Tate Gallery cataloguing files
[11] E.g. Study for a Portrait of Van Gogh I, 1956, Sainsbury Collection, University of East Anglia, repr. Bruce Bernard, Francis Bacon: Study for Portrait of Van Gogh, Arts Council brochure, London 1994, [p.2], (col.)
[12] David Sylvester, ‘Francis Bacon’, New Statesman, vol.53, no.1632, 22 June 1962, p.915
[13] Clement Greenberg, Art and Culture: Critical Essays, New York 1961
[14] Fabrice Hergott and Hervé Vanel in Francis Bacon, exh. cat. Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 1996, p.235
[15] Repr. Alley 1964 [p.251], no.210
[16] Repr. Alley 1964, [p.223], no.150
[17] Repr. ibid., [p.222], no.149
[18] Repr. ibid., p.81, no.75 (col.)
[19] Repr. ibid., p.85, no.80 (col.)
[20] Ernst van Alphen, Francis Bacon and the Loss of Self, London 1992, p.174


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