Painted in 1956-57, Francis Bacon is an incredibly rare portrait of the celebrated artist by his friend and fellow painter, Lucian Freud. This picture dates from the height of their friendship with each other, and is a tribute to the importance that these two giants of twentieth-century British painting had upon each other. While Freud appear in many of Bacon's oils, the present portrait is the only surviving oil portrait that Freud painted of Bacon. The raw canvas of Francis Bacon throws an extra emphasis on the brushwork with which the face has been rendered, making this picture a rare insight both into Freud's working practices and into one of his most important friendships.
Freud had first met Bacon in 1945. He had heard about this mysterious and distinctive artist from Graham Sutherland. Within a short time, Sutherland had arranged for both artists to join him for a weekend at his home in the country, and they met at the station on the way there. "Once I met him I saw him a lot," Freud recalled (Freud, quoted in W. Feaver, "Lucian Freud: Life into Art" pp. 12-50, in W. Feaver (ed.), Lucian Freud, exh. cat., London, 2002, p. 26). They soon enjoyed an intense and productive friendship, seeing each other on a daily basis, be it in studios or in the various haunts of Soho that they frequented. It was only natural that these two painters, in each other's company so much, would begin to feature in each other's pictures, Freud appearing in Bacon's oils for the first time in 1951 and Bacon appearing in three drawings by Freud executed in 1951, two paintings of 1952 and 1956-57 and a later drawing from 1970.
Freud actually sat for Bacon in the studio for his first portrait by his friend, executed in 1951. This was a rare occurrence as Bacon usually preferred to work from secondary media such as photographs. On his return to the studio after this first sitting, Freud recognised that, in his absence, the work had completely changed-somehow it had evolved, and now closely resembled a snapshot of Kafka that was amongst the various bits of media flotsam and ephemera that littered Bacon's studio. Bacon sat for Freud in 1952, resulting in the famous oil portrait of Bacon that was in the collection of the Tate until it was stolen in 1988 from an exhibition in Berlin and whose whereabouts remain unknown. It is a telling indication of the differences in working techniques between the two artists that Freud took three months to paint that portrait-- the notoriously restless Bacon apparently, and even surprisingly, "grumbled but sat consistently" (Freud, quoted in ibid., p. 26). They sat knee to knee, Bacon looking downwards, his head filling the small copper plate. Intriguingly, this downward gaze is prefigured in Freud's 1951 drawing, implying that this contemplative pose was a continuous feature in the artist. The present portrait, Francis Bacon, which was left unfinished on account of its sitter suddenly leaving probably to pursue his lover Peter Lacy in Tangier, is now, in addition to the four drawings, the only remaining portrait of Bacon. A number of other portraits of Bacon were, at one time or another, attempted but although started, apart from Francis Bacon, they dissatisfied the perfectionist Freud, who accordingly destroyed them. Freud himself, on the other hand, was often the subject of Bacon's works throughout the years, appearing in a number of guises in his oils.
During the 1950s, when this picture was painted, period Bacon and Freud saw each other on a daily basis, having dinner almost every night. It was the heyday of Bohemian life in Soho, a now-legendary era in the Post-War era when intellectuals, artists, playwrights, poets and plain old drinkers frequented some of the landmark establishments day after day, night after night. Caroline Blackwood described the carnivalesque atmosphere of this strange, inebriated and intoxicating world, into which she herself was plunged during her marriage to Freud: it was "a whole kind of Soho life. Going out to Wheeler's, and then the Colony and the Gargoyle, was the thing with that crowd-- Francis Bacon, James Pope-Hennessey, John Minton, Cyril Connolly" (C. Blackwood quoted in M. Filler, "The Naked and the Id", in Vanity Fair, vol. 56, no. 11, 1993, p. 198). This small roll-call of prominent figures from the era is an indication of the cultural importance of some of the people inhabiting that decadent world; and of course, the list went on. At that time, Freud was living in Dean Street, but also kept a studio in Delamere Terrace in Paddington; it was there that Francis Bacon was painted. During this period, Bacon lived and had a studio in Battersea; however, the pair still managed to see each other all the time.
As well as a physical closeness, there was a closeness in the way in which Bacon and Freud were painting during this period. For they were both determinedly figurative artists, working at a moment when the Abstract Expressionism of their American contemporaries was so much in the ascendant and appeared to be dominating so much of the avant garde. In London, a different avant garde, which did not feel the pressing need to break free from the influences either of the figurative world or of the examples of their artistic predecessors, emerged. While many of the artists loosely grouped under the umbrella of the so-called 'School of London' would resent the label, it nonetheless highlights the fact that many prominent artists of the period were working in a figurative idiom. Alongside Freud and Bacon were artists such as Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach and John Minton, all of whom were part of the same circle; indeed, many of these artistic and personal alliances were immortalised in photographs from the time, not least the famous image of Bacon holding court in his favourite London restaurant, Wheeler's.
During this frenzied highpoint of their friendship, both Bacon and Freud shared a love of gambling. Freud would bet on the horses, while Bacon preferred casinos. In a sense, though, this love of hazard, of chance, was a crucial influence on Freud's painting. For until 1954, Freud had meticulously and painstakingly painted, often using incredibly fine sable-hair brushes in order to create his pictures. It had, up to this point, been his practise to paint while sitting down; however, in 1954, he began to paint standing behind his easel, a technique that he has continued to use to this day. This allowed him to work in a far more expansive way, adding a great gestural quality to his brushwork that was emphasised by his use of newly-adopted coarse, thicker hog's-hair brushes which amplified his touch and made the paint freer. He also ceased to rely on underdrawing, allowing him to work with a far greater spontaneity and directness. Bacon, and his love of chance, played an instrumental role in these changes in Freud's working practise. Bacon lived life on the brink, he courted risk, and he was producing works that were violent explosive and fuelled by hazard; and yet they worked. Freud would later recall that Bacon talked about, "packing a lot of things into one single brushstroke, which amused and excited me, and I realised that I was million miles from anything I could ever do." Freud, losing patience with his older methods, pushed himself accordingly, adding more emphasis to each brushstroke. This is clearly evident in the materiality and sense of movement that fill Francis Bacon, clearly showing the influence of the sitter on the technique of the portraitist who was painting him. Freud has disregarded lines in favour of planes and volumes, liberating the paint, creating a more worked complexion, more seasoned and full of life.