Between 1959 and 1969, when he completed Study of Henrietta Moraes Laughing, Francis Bacon painted his friend and muse at least 23 times (counting
each triptych as one work). Martin Harrison, the writer, curator and authority on Bacon’s work, describes
the picture, which was the artist’s final named portrait of Moraes, as ‘the distillation of all the paintings, expressing
his feelings for her and his understanding of her psyche’.
Born Audrey Wendy Abbott, in Simla, India, in 1931, Moraes
was raised by an abusive grandmother in England. She never saw
her father, who served in the Indian Air Force and deserted
the family when her mother was pregnant. Escaping her troubled
childhood, this self-styled Bohemian drifted into the Soho
milieu inhabited by Bacon, and became a model for artists.
An affair with Lucian Freud resulted in the painting Girl in a Blanket,
1953. Her great love, though, was reputedly the artist John Minton, who was a homosexual. She lived in what was, in effect, a
ménage-a-trois with Minton and the actor Norman Bowler, whom
she married in 1956 and went on to have two children with.
Minton took his own life in 1957, leaving her his house in Chelsea. ‘Bacon had stayed here in 1953,
and it was here that John Deakin took the notorious nude
photographs of Henrietta around 1959,’ explains Harrison.
In 1961, she married the Indian poet Dom Moraes, and although
the union was short-lived, she decided to keep his name.
Moraes typified Bacon’s ideal female friend — sexually uninhibited,
unconventional, spirited if vulnerable, gregarious, and a
serious drinker. In 1969, when Bacon painted Study of Henrietta Moraes Laughing,
she was 38 years old and had behind her several suicide attempts
and three failed marriages (her first husband, the film-maker Michael Law, had given her the name Henrietta).
For her part, Moraes regarded Bacon as a prophet, principally because his paintings of her lying on a bed with a syringe in her arm had foretold the drug addiction to which she later succumbed.
In December 1968, Bacon’s studio was trashed by his lover, George Dyer, in a fit of rage and jealousy. While it was being repaired, from January to August 1969, Bacon worked in a studio in the nearby Royal College of Art. ‘The change of location coincided with Bacon starting to paint on yellow grounds, beginning with an atypical profile rendition in Portrait of Henrietta Moraes, 1969,’ writes Harrison. ‘Study of Henrietta Moraes Laughing was the first painting he completed after returning to his Reece Mews studio.’
Bacon approached the blank canvas with a mixture of confidence
and apprehension. He was trying to convey feelings — about
himself, life and death, and of his subject — that were
problematic to express in paint. He would recount — almost as if he had been assisted by
a miracle of outside intervention — that certain paintings
had ‘come off’. He was referring to the gamble he took
in the act of painting, one that relied on ‘chance’ or
Working alone in his studio, and often feeling unwell or anxious,
Bacon succeeded in maintaining the level of inspiration, energy
and exhilaration that resulted in Study of Henrietta Moraes Laughing.
It is a painting that the viewer experiences viscerally, as Bacon
said he felt his paintings in himself.
Alex Rotter, Chairman of Post-War and Contemporary Art at Christie’s in New York,
points out that the picture focuses not on Henrietta Moraes’s
face, ‘but the complexity of her psychological state’, underlining the artist’s ‘incomparable ability to convey emotions’.
‘Study of Henrietta Moraes Laughing is a wonderful representation of Mr. Newhouse’s extraordinary eye for quality’ — Guillaume Cerutti
Study of Henrietta Moraes Laughing was known formerly
as Study of Henrietta Moraes, 1969, and was exhibited
under that title in Bacon’s major retrospectives at the
Grand Palais, Paris, in 1971, and at the Tate Gallery in
1985. Beyond identifying body positions (‘Seated’, ‘Lying’,
‘Reclining’) in his paintings, Bacon never appended descriptive
adjectives to their titles, countering potentially anecdotal
and narrative interpretations. Evidently, he soon regretted
adding the word ‘laughing’, and had Marlborough Fine Art
remove it from the official title.
The viewer’s gaze is drawn to the eyes — perhaps in the transitional
motion of blinking — and moves inevitably to the mouth,
the site of the ‘laugh’. Moraes’s laugh, which could certainly
be described as enigmatic, indicates that Leonardo da Vinci’s
Mona Lisa was in the back of Bacon’s mind. Her
neckline, too, is similar to La Gioconda’s.
Study of Henrietta Moraes Laughing also has affinities
with Picasso’s portrait of Dora Maar, Femme assise, robe bleue,
1939, the ‘smile’ in which has also been compared with
that of the Mona Lisa. Bacon was probably aware,
too, of the coincidence that Maar’s first name was actually
Henriette. These correlations, if speculative, are compelling
in the context of Bacon’s theoretical discourse with Picasso.
A gift to his
sister Ianthe, whom he had visited in South Africa soon
after completing it, the painting was probably always intended for Bacon’s 1971 retrospective at the Grand Palais, Paris. The satisfaction Bacon gained from the exhibition
was intensified by the fact that he was only the second
artist to receive the honour in his lifetime: the first having been Picasso in 1966-67. Ultimately, Picasso was the one
20th-century artist Bacon respected, and against whom he
Study of Henrietta Moraes Laughing, which will be
offered in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 15 November in New York, is a masterpiece that
exemplifies S.I. Newhouse’s ability to acquire only the
works that fully illustrate the unique brilliance of their respective artist. ‘It is a wonderful representation of
Mr. Newhouse’s extraordinary eye for quality, that has
been reflected throughout his entire art collection,’ remarks
Guillaume Cerutti, Christie’s CEO.