Francis Bacon Lot 29B
Francis Bacon (1909-1992)
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Property from an Important European Collector
Francis Bacon (1909-1992)

Two Studies for Portrait

Francis Bacon (1909-1992)
Two Studies for Portrait
signed, titled and dated '2 studies for portrait 1976 Francis Bacon' (on the reverse of each canvas)
diptych—oil on canvas
each: 14 x 12 in. (35.5 x 30.5 cm.)
(2)Painted in 1976.
Collection of the artist
Galerie Claude Bernard, Paris
J. Komkommer, Antwerp
His sale; Sotheby's, London, 2 July 1987, lot 695
Private collection
Richard Gray Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Paris, Galerie Claude Bernard, Francis Bacon, Oeuvres Recentes, January 1977, no. 11 (illustrated in color).
Sale room notice
This Lot is Withdrawn.

Brought to you by

Sara Friedlander
Sara Friedlander

Lot Essay

This work will be included in the forthcoming Francis Bacon Catalogue raisonné as no. 76-11.

Francis Bacon’s Study for Portrait is a masterful essay on the evocative form of portraiture that made the artist one of the most celebrated painters of his generation. From the characteristic twists and turns of Bacon’s brush slowly emerges a face that is filled with psychological resonance. Not only does this striking diptych display a physical rendering of its subject, its knotted and twisted features also provides a deeper, psychological, reading of Bacon’s sitter and also, of the artist himself. One of just nine portraits the artist painted of his friend, the American photographer Peter Beard, it marked a new phase in Bacon’s career as he began to merge his own features with those of his sitters. So, in Study for Portrait, the artist’s strong features become intertwined with Beard’s more refined face. “I think art is an obsession with life,” Bacon once said, “and after all, as we are human beings, our greatest obsession is with ourselves” (F. Bacon quoted by D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1990, p. 63).

In comparison to some of his earlier more brutalized characterizations, the face that stares out from the surface of the canvas in Study for Portrait assumes the appearance of seemingly quiet reflection. In the left canvas, the eyes are open, staring out at the viewer with an intensity that engages you in direct confrontation. In the second, right hand canvas, the eyes appear less aggressive, with direct confrontation thwarted by a veil of purplish embellishments. The other striking feature of both these portraits is the subject’s handsome features—deftly depicted by the strong bone structure that Bacon renders with broad swaths of his paint laden brush. A high forehead, a strong supraorbital margin (the bone beneath the eyebrow) and robust cheekbones all unite to produce a man who has been blessed undeniable good looks.

The subject of Study for Portrait is Peter Beard, an American photographer whom Bacon had met a decade earlier. Distinguished by his chiseled features and distinctive ‘widow’s peak,’ Beard would become one of the artist’s closest confidants for much of the latter part of his life. Bacon first met the wildlife photographer and writer at the Marlborough Gallery in London in 1965 at the opening of one of Bacon’s exhibitions. The artist was carrying a copy of Beard’s book about the destruction of wildlife in Africa and his images impressed Bacon who particularly admired Beard’s aerial photographs of dead elephants. Over the next few years, their friendship developed and in 1972 Bacon invited Beard to his studio on Narrow Street overlooking the River Thames to photograph him and one of these photographs appears to be the basis for Bacon’s large-scale Self-Portrait, painted the following year.

By 1975 Beard had become Bacon’s muse, a designation signaled by Bacon’s insistence on Beard being photographed sitting crossed-legged on a chair, in a pose eerily similar to that George Dyer (Bacon’s former lover) had adopted in an earlier portrait. That year Bacon only painted two people—himself and Peter Beard and Bacon admitted in an interview to David Sylvester that, “two people, very good looking, have turned up, both of whom I’ve known in the past. They’re both very good sitters” (F. Bacon, quoted by M. Fincke, “’I don’t find it at all violent myself:’ Bacon’s Material Practice and Human Body” in B. Dawson and M. Harrison (eds.), Francis Bacon: A Terrible Beauty, exh. cat., Dublin City Art Gallery The Hugh Lane, 2009, p. 144).

Bacon’s portraits of Peter Beard mark a significant stylistic shift for the artist. In a 1972 interview that the artist gave to Beard, he said that “I have always hoped to make portraits which went far away from the illustration of the person in front of me, but that I could bring back in a non-illustrational way to his real appearance” (F. Bacon, ibid.). Previously, Bacon had adopted two contrasting profile shots showing the left and right sides of the face—much like those of a police profile. But with his portraits of Beard, he increasingly embraced ‘front on’ format, taking full advantage of his sitters’ facial features. “I like painting good looking people because I like good bone structure” (F. Bacon, ibid.). In Study for Portrait, Bacon highlights the areas of Beard’s face he wishes to emphasize by adding passages of paint applied using corduroy fabric, and his sitter’s high cheekbones are emphatically rendered by a single sweep of Bacon’s wide brush, and burnished by glistening highlights above and dark shadows below. Increasingly by 1975 and 1976 Bacon also began to merge his own image with that of Peter Beard, sometimes importing Beard’s youthful features into his own self-portraits or, in the case of the present work, introducing some of his own more robust features onto Beard’s chiseled features.

The subtle variations of human flesh that Bacon captured in his portraits lend his works an extra, almost analytical quality. He does not merely paint a portrait, he manages to smear life itself across his canvas. “The living quality is what you have to get,” he explained. “In painting a portrait the problem is to find a technique by which you can give over all the pulsations of a person... Most people go to the most academic painters when they want to have their portraits made because for some reason they prefer a sort of color photograph of themselves instead of thinking of having themselves really trapped and caught. The sitter is someone of flesh and blood and what has to be caught is their emanation... There are always emanations from people whoever they are, though some peoples are stronger than others” (F. Bacon, 1982-84, in: D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact. Interviews with Francis Bacon, New York 1990, pp. 172-74).
Throughout his life, Bacon worked mainly from photographs and the source image for Study for Portrait was probably taken from a contact of Beard’s own photographic self-portraits that he gave to Bacon. Presenting two seemingly sequential images of his sitter’s face illuminated against an empty black background, this painting is the product of a prolonged and intensive process of examination and exploration. Bacon was able to bring all his emotional experience and familiarity with his subject’s features to bear on what he once described as the attempt to “capture” and “trap” a true and revealing image of a portrait subject. Bacon sought an elusive feature reflecting the visual effect of a person’s unique inner energy. This element he referred to, for want of better word and in completely non-mystical terms, as a person’s “emanation.”

Study for Portrait was painted during a period of considerable emotional upheaval for the artist. He was still recovering from the death of George Dyer—even though that event had happened a number of years earlier—and was also beginning to feel socially isolated as, at the age of nearly 70, many of his friends and compatriots had recently died. He has admitted that during this period he concentrated mainly on self-portraits as many of his usual subjects were no longer around. It is in this vein that Study for Portrait marks something of an awakening for Bacon, as he slowly begins to emerge from the emotional pall that had enveloped him following Dyer’s death. In Beard’s distinguished features we begin to see a more confident Bacon, an artist who is happy to revel once more in the physical joy of the act of painting.

Bacon belongs to a select group of artists who maintained their level of success well into later life, something that has eluded all but the greatest figures in art history. In her writings, Linda Nochlin has identified two types of late flourishes for artists of Bacon’s caliber—an ‘autumnal ripening’ as typified by Ingres, Rembrandt and Titian, and those who experienced a flurry of inventiveness like Matisse and his chromatic cut-outs. With a painting such as Study for Portrait, Bacon falls into both camps. And with his continued examination of the human condition Bacon’s work from this period has been likened to the late style of Pablo Picasso, with David Sylvester identifying its “loss of everything but the ambivalent pleasures of voyeurism and the will and force to go on making art” (D. Sylvester, quoted by R. Tant, in M. Gale, C. Stephens and G. Tinterow (eds.), Francis Bacon, exh. cat. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2009, p. 233).

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