Francis Bacon

Study for a Portrait


Not on display

Francis Bacon 1909–1992
Oil paint and sand on canvas
Support: 661 × 561 × 18 mm
frame: 880 × 740 × 73 mm
Bequeathed by Simon Sainsbury 2006, accessioned 2008


This painting, which has also been known as Businessman I 1952 or Man’s Head 1952 (Rothenstein and Alley 1964, p.61), shows the head and shoulders of an unidentified male figure wearing glasses, a white shirt, a suit jacket and a tie. The man appears to be screaming directly at a viewer, his mouth wide open and his teeth exposed. He is screened from the chalky darkness behind him by a blue curtain hung from a pink rail at eye-level, and his head is blurred by repeated erasure and repainting. Lines of white, red and blue paint are arranged like an angular harness on the figure, extending the lines of the suit and creating a frame over its wearer. From 1947 until the end of his career Francis Bacon painted directly onto the raw and unprimed side of the canvas (rather than using the smooth, receptive surface provided by primed canvas), and in this work he emphasised the texture further, especially around the figure’s eyes and mouth, by rubbing sand into the paint.

Study for a Portrait 1952 dates from a crucial point in Bacon’s engagement with portraiture, and is likely to have been made in the studio of the artist Rodrigo Moynihan at the Royal College of Art in London (see Wilson 2008, p.98). Bacon painted his first head in isolation in 1948, and Lucian Freud, a close friend, sat for Bacon’s first identifiable portrait of an individual in 1951, with Bacon returning the favour in 1952 (Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon 1952, Tate N06040). Yet, even when a model posed for him, Bacon found it, in the critic David Sylvester’s words, ‘easier to work from existing images than from a person or the memory of a person’ (David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 2001, p.73).

One specific image can be suggested as a potential source for the figure in Study for a Portrait. In 1949 the critic Robert Melville noted that Bacon’s painting Head VI 1949 – which also features a blurred and screaming figure – contained elements of a scene from the Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin (1925), in which Tsarist soldiers carry out a massacre on the vast stairway in the Ukrainian city of Odessa (Robert Melville, ‘Francis Bacon’, Horizon, vol.121, December 1949/January 1950, pp.419–23). Bacon saw Battleship Potemkin in 1935, but he painted from the stills of Eisenstein’s film included in Roger Manvell’s 1944 book Film, becoming particularly preoccupied with the image of a wounded, elderly nurse in the stairway scene, who wears cracked pince-nez glasses and has blood running down her cheek into her open, screaming mouth. Bacon first referenced these glasses in his painting Pope III 1951, and the mouth and glasses in Study for a Portrait might also be related to the image from Battleship Potemkin.

Study for a Portrait indicates Bacon’s broader interest in the human mouth, which is often connected with his purchase in 1935 in Paris of a book featuring diseases of the mouth. As the artist told Sylvester,

I’ve always been very moved by the movements of the mouth and the shape of the mouth and the teeth. People say these have all sorts of sexual implications, and I was always very obsessed by the actual appearance of the mouth and teeth, [by] the glitter and colour which comes from the mouth … [I have] hoped in a sense to paint the mouth like Monet painted a sunset.
(Quoted in Sylvester 2001, pp.48–50).

Suited men, too, were a recurring motif in Bacon’s work, suggestive of both the status and power conferred by the clothing, and of the vulnerability underneath it. Ronald Alley notes that one of the immediate directions in which Bacon took this motif – the seven paintings in the 1954 Man in Blue series – has been interpreted as depicting both a ‘victim’ and ‘a kind of ruthless interrogator’ (Rothenstein and Alley 1964, p.86).

The claustrophobic intensity of Study for a Portrait may be attributed to Bacon’s trademark ‘space-frame’ technique, which seems to trap the central figure in a transparent cage. When Sylvester asked the artist about this persistent feature in his work, Bacon insisted, ‘I cut down the scale of the canvas by drawing in these rectangles which concentrate the image down. Just to see it better … I don’t think it’s a satisfactory device especially; I try to use it as little as possible. But sometimes it seems necessary’ (Sylvester 2001, pp.22–3).

Study for a Portrait was first shown in January 1953 at the Leicester Galleries, London, in an exhibition titled New Year Exhibition 1953. It later appeared in Bacon’s solo exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York in 1963. The painting had many owners –including the politician, businessman and newspaper owner Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook – before it entered the collection of philanthropist Simon Sainsbury in 1995. It subsequently became part of the Simon Sainsbury Bequest in 2006, in which eighteen works were donated to Tate and the National Gallery.

Further reading
Jonathan Rothenstein and Ronald Alley, Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné and Documentation, London 1964, p.61.
Martin Harrison, In Camera – Francis Bacon: Photography, Film and the Practice of Painting, London 2005, p.102.
Andrew Wilson (ed.), The Simon Sainsbury Bequest to Tate and the National Gallery, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2008, pp.98–103, reproduced p.99.

Tom Overton
January 2014

Supported by Christie’s.

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Display caption

Francis Bacon painted directly onto the raw, unprimed side of the canvas and here emphasised the texture further by rubbing sand into the paint. He often based his paintings on a variety of photographic images. One source for the figure here may be a film still from Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) in which an elderly nurse wearing cracked glasses opens her mouth in a silent scream. Bacon was fascinated by the expressive power of the mouth.

Gallery label, May 2020

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