Painted towards the end of 1963, Portrait of Henrietta Moraes is perhaps the most seductive painting of a female figure ever realised by Francis Bacon. Created the year after his breakthrough retrospective at the Tate Gallery, London in 1962, and the same year as his first major American exhibition at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, the painting depicts the artist’s close friend and model Henrietta Moraes. For many years, the work formed part of a collection of important post-War masterpieces owned by European industrialist, Willy Schniewind. In 1983, a distinguished New York art collector acquired the painting directly from the family; it was to remain in the same collection for the best part of thirty years. Portrait of Henrietta Moraes is one of the seminal paintings by Bacon executed in 1963. Out of seven large-scale paintings the artist created that year, three are now housed in major international museums including Man and Child (The Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk), Study for a Self-Portrait (National Museum of Wales, Cardiff) and Study for Portrait on Folding Bed (Tate, London). The turning point came with the artist’s powerful and deeply affective Three Studies for a Crucifixion (1962) housed in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Over the preceding four years, Bacon had devoted himself to investigating the properties of paint, technique and undertaking studies of the human nude; a subject that he had rarely dared consider in his early career. In Portrait of Henrietta Moraes, Bacon has perfected the subject’s body, carrying it out with a prodigious use of rapid, impulsive brush marks. Having painstakingly established the stippled, coloured background of his painting, Bacon was taking a calculated risk, confidently establishing the figure as if it were ‘his own nervous system projected onto canvas’ (F. Bacon quoted in L. Gowing, ‘The Irrefutable Image’, Francis Bacon: Recent Paintings, exh. cat., New York, 1968, p. 13). Standing out proudly from a vivid lilac ground, Henrietta lies undressed in all her voluptuous glory on a simple ticking mattress. Her body undulates in a serpentine from the hilt of her ample bosom, past the narrow cinch of her waist to the sensuous curve of her outstretched leg, just like the sumptuous females of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s Le Bain Turc (1862). Unflinching and brazenly exposed like an odalisque, Moraes exudes a raw sexuality, her naked body dangerously open to the prying eye. For Bacon, this visceral quality and the sheer physicality of his model’s body was a source of constant rapture. Indeed he returned to Moraes as a subject for more than sixteen paintings over the course of his career including Three Studies for the Portrait of Henrietta Moraes (1963) held in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Celebrated by John Russell in his 1965 survey of contemporary art, Private View: The Lively World of British Art, co-authored by Lord Snowdon and Bryan Robertson, Portrait of Henrietta Moraes is described as a paragon of Francis Bacon’s oeuvre: ‘A major painting is a painting that gives up its secrets, one by one, for several hundreds of years, instead of dropping them, ready packaged, into the first-comer’s lap… Where the painter can still outrun the pack is in the meaningful ambiguity of the painted image; and it is in the exploration of this (as in the recent paintings [Portrait of Henrietta Moraes and Study for Portrait of P.L.]) that Bacon is one of the pioneers of human awareness. Quicker than any of his mechanized rivals, he shows us what is happening, in the 1960s, to our idea of what it means to be a human being’ (J. Russell et al. (eds.), Private View: The Lively World of British Art, London 1965, p. 65).
In Portrait of Henrietta Moraes, Bacon imbues the painting with a striking passion, as if carried over from the intensity of his own personal life. This was the year that Bacon embarked upon his all-consuming love affair with George Dyer, immortalising his partner in his first painting. While Bacon had often considered the figure of the male nude, his depictions of Moraes were the first to seriously consider the architecture of the female form. The same ardent splendour is present. As David Sylvester once observed: ‘Bacon’s lack of personal erotic interest in naked females did nothing to prevent these paintings from being as passionate as those of the male bodies that obsessed him’ (D. Sylvester, Francis Bacon: The Human Body, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, 1998, p. 36). Moraes herself was a notorious bonne vivante, denizen of the artist’s favourite haunt, the Colony Room, Soho. The muse to a number of contemporary British artists, she was one-time lover to Lucian Freud and appeared as the sitter in his Girl in a Blanket (1952). During the 1960s she met the young Indian poet Dominic Moraes and married him, adopting his surname as her own. A combination of her youthful hedonism and unsuccessful attempt as a burglar led to her spend a short spell inside Holloway Prison. With the help of her friend and writer Wyndham Lewis she later penned her memoirs of this frenetic period, coloured with the eccentric characters in her life such as Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach. As she recounted, ‘two people I was determined to make friends with because I felt so drawn to them were Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon. They were both young, not particularly well-known painters, but Lucian’s hypnotic eyes and Francis’s ebullience and charming habit of buying bottles of champagne proved irresistible’ (H. Moraes, Henrietta, London 1994, p. 30).
Bacon only ever depicted friends and never painted his subjects from life, preferring to use photographs instead. As he once explained to David Sylvester, ‘even in the case of friends who will come and pose, I’ve had photographs taken for portraits because I very much prefer working from the photographs than from them... I think that, if I have the presence of the image there, I am not able to drift so freely as I am able to through the photographic image... what I want to do is to distort the thing far beyond the appearance, but in the distortion to bring it back to a recording of the appearance’ (F. Bacon interview with D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, New York 1990, pp. 39-40). For Portrait of Henrietta Moraes, Bacon commissioned John Deakin, his friend and feted photographer to take a now renowned series of images that he would translate into his paintings. The project did not go smoothly at first, as Moraes was later to recount in her memoirs. The photographs were taken at 9 Apollo Place, Chelsea; the house Moraes had inherited from the artist John Minton, where Bacon himself had once lived for a short time in 1955. Deakin had already used Moraes as a model for a nine-foot blow-up image displayed in Archer’s poetry shop in Greek Street, Soho, but had never taken a picture of her or indeed any woman in the nude before. Bacon had devised his own rigid criteria for each pose, carefully instructing Deakin of how to capture Henrietta on film. ‘He wants them naked and you lying on the bed’ Deakin said to Henrietta, ‘and he’s told me the exact positions you must get into’ (J. Deakin quoted in H. Moraes, Henrietta, London 1994, p. 71). The shoot was a disappointment, Bacon exclaiming, ‘Well, look here, Henrietta - this blithering nitwit has reversed every single shot of you I wanted’ (F. Bacon quoted in H. Moraes, Henrietta, London 1994, p. 71). Bacon demanded that it be restaged, and it was through this subsequent shoot that Deakin produced the well-known contact sheet used as the source image for the present painting.
The resulting work with all its heady sexuality was created on a papal red ground, as if derived from Velázquez’s Portrait of Innocent X. On top of this smooth, monochrome surface, the artist conjured up the walls of the bedroom with a stippled, lilac layer of paint just as he had done in his Man and Child (1963) held in the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk. Together the serene chromatic balance of lilac, white and saturated red recall the bold and emotive fields of colour created by contemporary artists such as Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. As David Sylvester has pointed out, in Bacon’s other notorious painting of Moraes from the same year, Lying Figure with Hypodermic Syringe (1963), he employed stacked layers of purple, brown and black colour like those of his American colleagues. Yet Bacon was consistently scathing about Abstract Expressionism. For him, abstraction was to be restricted to the backgrounds of paintings, as complements to his figurative images. Notwithstanding, the Tate Gallery’s 1959 exhibition, The New American Painting did leave a profound impression on the artist, with certain similarities emerging in his later body of work. As David Sylvester concluded: ‘Bacon, who was famous for enjoying and engendering huge hilarity in his social life, created an art that was always resoundingly solemn. But he was not quite alone in his solemnity; he was in the company of Newman and Rothko and Still and Pollock. Those four contemporaries of his are grouped by Robert Rosenblum as the exponents of ‘The Abstract Sublime’. And Bacon’s role in painting has been that of the one great exponent in our time of the Figurative Sublime’ (D. Sylvester, Francis Bacon: The Human Body, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, 1998, p. 21).
In Portrait of Henrietta Moraes a flurry of white brushstrokes combine to suggest a bedspread and pillows, using a technique strikingly similar to Bacon’s salacious and at the time, deeply provocative masterpiece Two Figures (1953), depicting a couple, ostensibly Bacon and Peter Lacy, writhing around on a bed. In the present work, Henrietta’s ripe body lies majestically at the centre of the bedroom. Her figure is remarkable, the swirling contours created with impulsive, cascading marks of the artist’s brush. The muscles in her limbs almost convulse through the effects of Bacon’s confident gestures. As André Breton once famously asserted, ‘beauty will be convulsive or will not be at all’ (A. Breton, Nadja, New York 1960, p. 160) and in Portrait of Henrietta Moraes these words appear to have found their ultimate fulfillment. The figure itself has a carnal quality to it, recalling Bacon’s Three Studies for a Crucifixion (1962), which marked a turning point in his practice. From the late 1940s through to the mid-1950s, Bacon’s treatment of flesh had been largely monochromatic. From 1962 onwards however, his technique and use of vibrant colour offered the body a more visceral and graphic effect than ever before. In Three Studies for a Crucifixion, Bacon coupled the human body with a splayed carcass in the right hand panel, recalling the work of Chaim Soutine and Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox (1655). Bacon drew an explicit connection between meat, flesh and sex. As Robert Melville once elaborated, ‘Bacon has used paint as if he were modeling the figure out of wet clay or as if he has forced his hands into the actual substance of the model and sculpted the bone structure in order to intensify the pliancy of the flesh. The result is an effect of sumptuous deliquescence’ (R. Melville quoted in M. Gale & C. Stephens (eds.), Francis Bacon, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 2008, p. 262). In Portrait of Henrietta Moraes, the same link can be made, her body depicted as though the flesh had been turned mysteriously inside-out. As Bryson has suggested, ‘Bacon changes the current entirely, by joining the torsion of muscle, with its erotic charge, to the spasms where the boundaries of the body break open to the outside, where inside and outside flow into each other and the body is opened up (like meat)’ (N. Bryson, ‘Bacon’s Dialogues with the Past’, W. Seipel et al. (eds.), Francis Bacon and the Tradition of Art, exh. cat., Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Vienna, 2004, p. 54).
In Portrait of Henrietta Moraes, the recumbent figure is surrounded by a halo of red, radiating like the latent heat from her skin. It is an almost spectral shadow, one of Bacon’s well-known hallmarks. The artist first began engendering this effect in the 1950s in paintings such as Two Figures in a Room (1959) held in the Robert and Lisa Sainsbury collection, University of East Anglia. He had been looking at fragments from books such as J.E. Burns’s, Adventures in Wildest Africa published in 1949 documenting big game hunting with three-dimensional printing. The book shortly predates the public frenzy for 3-D images of the mid 1950s, which clearly informed Bacon’s practice (an interesting parallel given the current, contemporary vogue for 3-D optics) (M. Harrison, Francis Bacon: Incunabula, London 2008). For the artist however, the silhouette was not merely a function of light or optical illusion, but rather a metaphorical tool representing the model’s emotional and physical ‘emanation’. As Gamper has elaborated, ‘Bacon’s shadow figures are a projection of a past, undamaged condition, a relic of a time when the body was still intact. The figure always carries within it its archetype, marked by unity and entirety, underlining its own precarious corporeality’ (V. Gamper, ‘The Ambivalent Function of a Shadow’, W. Seipel et al. (eds.), Francis Bacon and the Tradition of Art, exh. cat., Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Vienna, 2004, p. 301).
Through the centre of Henrietta’s figure, Bacon has also added dark black, curving brush strokes, intimating a sense of movement or rotation of the torso. It is as if he has conflated a series of movements into one image, like an Eadweard Muybridge photograph, so that we simultaneously see Henrietta lying exposed, supine, as well as gently rolling onto her side. Her facial features appear distorted, like an African mask or the angular physiognomy of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) by Pablo Picasso who Bacon greatly admired. She nevertheless offers a potent sense of Henrietta’s character, shining up from the paint surface. As Bacon once explained, ‘I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail, leaving a trail of the human presence and memory trace of past events, as the snail leaves its slime’ (F. Bacon quoted in D. Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon, London 2000, p. 56).
Throughout his career Bacon painted intimate and deeply revealing portraits of men, but it was only in the 1960s that he seriously turned to the figures of women. These works are equally insightful of Bacon’s character, revealing the depths of his search for self-identity and sexual orientation. As David Sylvester once described, ‘the two sexes met in Francis Bacon, more than in any other human being I have encountered. At moments he was one of the most feminine of men, at others one of the most masculine. He would switch between these roles as suddenly and as unpredictably as the switching of a light. That duality did more than anything perhaps to make his presence so famously seductive and compelling and to make him so peculiarly wise and realistic in his observation of life’ (D. Sylvester, Francis Bacon: The Human Body, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, 1998, p. 21).
Following the death of Peter Lacy in Tangiers in 1962, the same day as Bacon’s major Tate Gallery opening, the artist turned to strong and independent female characters for support and friendship. He forged close relationships with characters such as Muriel Belcher, Isabel Rawsthorne and Henrietta Moraes whom he painted, as well as other women including Joan Leigh Fermor, Nadine Haim, Janetta Parladé, and Sonia Orwell who he credited as being ‘the person most responsible for my success’ (F. Bacon, quoted in M. Harrison, In Camera: Francis Bacon, Photography, Film and the Practice of Painting, London 2005, p. 224). In paint, he was expressing neither the absentee mother, nor the ‘melting’ submissive woman but, as Harrison has explained, ‘the women with whom he identified-the recipients of male sex. He was as extreme in his sexual proclivities-he wore make-up and women’s underwear and ‘suffered’ physical beatings-as in all aspects of his life and art. He conveyed his inner life without compromise, but in code, in his paintings’ (M. Harrison, In Camera: Francis Bacon, Photography, Film and the Practice of Painting, London 2005, p. 230). In this respect, Bacons Portrait of Henrietta Moraes dismisses the supposed duality between the two sexes, presenting the dynamics of desire and delving into the recesses of Bacon’s own restless mind.