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5 minutes with… Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for a Portrait

Francis Outred, Head of Post-War and Contemporary Art in London, discusses the 1976 triptych that signalled the end of a long period of mourning for the artist. It is offered in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Auction on 6 March

‘I remember being blown away by this painting when I first saw it almost a decade ago,’ says Francis Outred, Head of Post-War and Contemporary Art at Christie’s in London, of Francis Bacon’s 1976 triptych, Three Studies for a Portrait. ‘It was in the personal collection of an architect,’ Outred recalls, ‘hung beautifully in his apartment, above a sofa. It was the first thing I saw when I walked in the door, and it completely drew me in.’ 

From the late 1950s onward the small-scale triptych became Bacon’s signature composition. In particular, Outred explains, Bacon considered the 14- by 12-inch format ‘the right scale for focusing on the bold features of the face’. This example will be a highlight of the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Auction  on 6 March at Christie’s in London. 

In Three Studies for a Portrait  Bacon uses the format to depict Henrietta Moraes, his close friend and confidante, who had also sat for Lucian Freud. Moraes first appeared in Bacon’s work in 1963 and subsequently inspired more than 20 paintings, including his 1969 Study of Henrietta Moraes, and six 14-by-12-inch triptychs, the first of which is now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Francis Bacon (1909-1992), Three Studies for a Portrait, 1976. Each 14 x 12 in (35.5 x 30.5 cm). Estimate £10,000,000-15,000,000. This lot is offered in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Auction on 6 March 2018  at Christie’s in London

Francis Bacon (1909-1992), Three Studies for a Portrait, 1976. Each: 14 x 12 in (35.5 x 30.5 cm). Estimate: £10,000,000-15,000,000. This lot is offered in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Auction on 6 March 2018 at Christie’s in London

‘The work is also an ode to the renowned film Hiroshima Mon Amour,’ notes Outred. In the 1959 film by Alain Resnais the lead actress, Emmanuelle Riva, is captured in one shot of the movie with a lock of hair hanging across her face. ‘Bacon uses the hair as a compositional device to splice the face and pivot its two sides,’ the specialist explains.

It is fitting that Bacon turned to Resnais’ film for inspiration, Outred says, as Hiroshima Mon Amour  ‘was about love, loss, despair and memory.’ When Bacon executed this work, the artist was still mourning the loss of George Dyer, ‘the great love of his life, who had committed suicide in Paris on the eve of Bacon’s 1971 retrospective at the Grand Palais.’

In the years following his death, Bacon made a series of landmark black, large-scale triptychs in Dyer’s memory. He even moved to Paris in 1974, becoming fiercely Francophile and fully assimilating into French life. ‘So,’ Outred continues, ‘you have two mirrored stories of loss and memory coming together in this one painting.’

Bacon famously did not prime the front of his canvases. Instead, he primed the back, causing the paint to seep into the fabric. ‘In Three Studies  there’s a sort of a chalky aspect to the paint, and the black is really dense,’ Outred points out. Bacon even dipped a part of his corduroy sleeve in paint and dabbed it on the canvas. Together, these techniques give the figure an almost sculptural feel. ‘There’s a tribal aspect to it,’ says Outred, ‘a rawness to the image. The texture of the paint really adds to that.’

Francis Outred examines the reverse of the triptych, proudly signed, titled and dated on the reverse of each panel by Bacon in 1976 

Francis Outred examines the reverse of the triptych, proudly signed, titled and dated on the reverse of each panel by Bacon in 1976 

‘Where this painting differs from the triptychs that came before,’ the specialist continues, ‘is that, rather than darkness for darkness's sake, you have a kind of light emerging through the dark, with the application of strong orange hues and clean whites.’ The lightness reflects the fact that, by 1976, Bacon’s grief over the loss of Dyer had finally begun to subside.

Three Studies for a Portrait  was first exhibited in 1977, at the Galerie Claude Bernard in Paris. By then Bacon was considered something of a hero in France, and the show received considerable press coverage. The opening saw some 8,000 people pass through the gallery in just a few hours, and police blocking off the street outside. 

The show, which represented ‘the culmination of this moment of reflection, memory and loss for Bacon’, included many of the great paintings he made following Dyer’s death. ‘It was the end of a certain period for him,’ Outred explains. After years of emotional strain, the artist finally entered a period of personal and professional contentment.

Outred has high expectations for a work with ‘great provenance and a great studied history’. Three Studies  is thought to have been acquired by the current owner directly from the 1977 exhibition, after which it was never again seen in public.