The first of only 10 diptychs painted by Francis Bacon, Study for Head of Isabel Rawsthorne and George Dyer commemorates two of the artist’s most profound relationships: with his lover and muse, George Dyer, and his lifelong friend and confidante, the artist Isabel Rawsthorne.
Painted in 1967, it was the first of only two works portraying Rawsthorne and Dyer together. Central figures within the cast of charismatic characters that touched Bacon’s life, Rawsthorne and Dyer came to occupy the artist’s greatest decade in paint: the 1960s. Yet within the colourful pageant of Bacon’s ‘gilded gutter life’, they played very different roles.
While Rawsthorne remained a devoted friend until her death, Dyer’s relationship with Bacon was tragically cut short when, on the eve of the artist’s long-awaited 1971 retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris, Dyer took his own life. This event was to have a devastating impact on Bacon, giving rise to his celebrated series of black triptychs. In Study for Head of Isabel Rawsthorne and George Dyer, Bacon captures Dyer in his prime, together with Rawsthorne, during the artist’s social heyday in Soho.
United by the definitive role they played in Bacon’s life, Rawsthorne and Dyer are presented in a manner that recalls Piero della Francesca’s masterful double-profile marriage portraits. Though Bacon had never taken a husband or wife, Rawsthorne and Dyer were his two closest companions: Dyer as his lover, Rawsthorne as his friend and, allegedly, the only woman with whom he ever attempted physical intimacy.
Through Study for Head of Isabel Rawsthorne and George Dyer, Bacon portrays his subjects in his signature intimate portrait format, each measuring 12 by 14 inches. In a flurry of near-sculptural brushstrokes, Rawsthorne and Dyer emerge through pale, luminous tones, like spectral apparitions, each swirling contour of their distorted faces articulated with rapid, impulsive gestures. In the void that exists between them, we can almost sense Bacon himself: the missing part of an incomplete trilogy.
In Dyer, Bacon found a fragile spirit to whom he was intensely attracted. A handsome man who took meticulous care over his appearance, Dyer wore a uniform of clean-cut suits and tightly-knotted narrow ties. Yet beneath this sharp exterior was a troubled, emotionally fraught character, frequently crippled by a sense of purposelessness.
Not an hour goes by when I don’t think about George — Francis Bacon
Around 30 years old at the time of their meeting in 1963, Dyer looked up to Bacon as a mentor and guardian. Towards the end of the 1960s, however, Bacon’s mercurial character and Dyer’s own bleak prospects made for a tumultuous relationship, punctuated by sharp mood swings and fits of emotion. Bacon’s prodigious portraits of Dyer from the mid- to late-1960s, now mostly held in museum collections, reached a level of painterly fervour unrivalled within the rest of his oeuvre.
While Dyer swept Bacon along on a rollercoaster of passion and despair, Rawsthorne was a constant, dependable friend, a strong-willed character with a zest for life. A muse of the 1930s art scene, Rawsthorne had modelled for André Derain, Alberto Giacometti and Pablo Picasso, and, in the 1960s, she became Bacon’s most important female subject. His enduring admiration for her character was matched by his fascination with her appearance: her high forehead and sweeping hairline, arched brows and prominent cheekbones.
She appeared in three magnificent large-scale paintings between 1964 and 1967 and, alongside the two diptychs with Dyer, at least 15 small portraits and five triptychs up until 1983. During this time, Bacon surmised that he had painted more small portrait heads of Rawsthorne than he had of himself.
You know I also made love to Isabel Rawsthorne, a very beautiful woman who was Derain’s model and Georges Bataille’s girlfriend — Francis Bacon
Study for Head of Isabel Rawsthorne and George Dyer represents Bacon’s portraiture at the height of its development. Throughout his life, the artist worked obsessively from pictures of his friends, commissioned from the photographer John Deakin. A posthumous excavation of Bacon’s studio at 7 Reece Mews revealed 129 photographs of Dyer and 22 of Rawsthorne. Bacon explained to David Sylvester how working from photography allowed him a ‘slight remove from the fact, which returns me onto the fact more violently’.
Many of the photographs of Rawsthorne and Dyer rescued from Bacon’s studio were creased, torn, ripped apart and cut away, as if these destructive acts would reveal the true heart of the subjects. As Michael Peppiatt has written, ‘Bacon once said that he thought of real friendship as a state in which two people pulled each other to pieces — dissecting and criticizing mercilessly. This is the act of “friendship” that Bacon perpetrates in the portraits: a pulling apart of the other until he gets to an irreducible truth — or “fact”, as he liked to call it, in a pseudoscientific fashion — about their appearance and character.’ It is this dynamic that is captured in Study for Head of Isabel Rawsthorne and George Dyer.
Main image at top: Francis Bacon (1909-1992), Study for Head of Isabel Rawsthorne and George Dyer, 1967. Oil on canvas. 14 × 12 in. (35.5 × 30.5 cm.) Estimate on request. This work is offered in our Post-war & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in London on 30 June
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