'[Rawsthorne had an] animal exuberance a magnetism and a mobility of expression that captivated Bacon...her face would assume a look of extreme indignation, followed by one of raucous good humour, and then a glance of seduction, all dropped like masks and as rapidly replaced' (M. Peppiatt quoted in F. Laukötter & M. Müller, 'Paintings 1945-1991', A. Zweite & M. Müller (eds.), Francis Bacon: The Violence of the Real, London 2006, p. 148).
Created in 1983, Studies of Isabel Rawsthorne is the last portrait that Francis Bacon ever painted of his lifelong friend, confidante and artistic muse Isabel Rawsthorne. Given as a gift to Bacon's personal physician, Dr. Paul Brass, along with a number of other paintings including Figure in Movement (1985), it commemorates two of the artist's most intimate relationships. An enduring character in Bacon's life, he first met Rawsthorne in 1947. She was already by this stage a deeply desired and sought after model, living and working in Paris with artists including André Derain, Alberto Giacometti and Pablo Picasso. It was this dynamic young woman, with her outspoken charisma and strident zeal who was to introduce Bacon to Giacometti in 1965. In Studies of Isabel Rawsthorne, a sense of her tenacious spirit appears distilled as if into the very fabric of the painting. Two profiles are depicted in opposite panels, like two aspects in a cabinet mirror, presenting the viewer with an almost 'stereoscopic' view of the subject's visage. Rendered against a backdrop of brilliant orange, the face appears proud, the arched brow and noble contours expertly captured by Bacon's brushwork.
Just as the artist elaborated in his Reclining Man with Sculpture (1960) currently held in the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, the present painting has an almost tangible, sculptural quality, the handsome physiognomy almost carved out from the luminescent, flat ground. As the artist once told David Sylvester, 'I would like now - and I suppose it's through thinking about sculpture - I would like, quite apart from the attempt to do sculpture, to make sculpture, to make the painting itself very much more sculptural' (F. Bacon quoted in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1990, p. 114). Vibrant, fuchsia hatchings partially obscure Rawsthorne's eyes, cheeks and lips adding a powerful geometry to the composition. At the same time, these veils of paint reveal a sympathy rarely witnessed in Bacon's oeuvre. Rawsthorne was already seventy by the time of this painting, yet Bacon opted to suspend the passage of time for his friend, softening the lines of her face and the failing eyes in a mark of deep affection.
Studies of Isabel Rawsthorne was derived from a black and white photograph taken by John Deakin in and around Soho in the 1960s. As Bacon once explained, 'I have, even in the case of friends who will come and pose, I've had photographs taken for portraits because I much prefer working from the photographs than from them. It's true to say I couldn't attempt to do a portrait from photographs of somebody I didn't know. But, if I both know them and have photographs of them, I find it easier to work than actually having their presence in the room' (F. Bacon quoted in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1990, p. 38). In the painting, her profile clearly matches that of the photo, yet it is invested with a unique essence of the character. Distorted and depicted against a shrieking orange palette, the painting goes far beyond the physical appearance to 'record' a sense of Rawsthorne's own physical atmosphere and gravity. As the artist once concluded, the portrait must capture the 'pulsations' of the person and in Studies of Isabel Rawsthorne with its bold, unabashed and statuesque composition, this is carried out prodigiously.
Throughout the course of his career Bacon depicted those from his close inner circle of friends. Amongst these, very few were women. Isabel Rawsthorne was perhaps the most significant in his life, appearing in three magnificent large-scale paintings between 1964-1967 and at least fifteen small portraits and five triptychs up until 1983. Rawsthorne was a talented young artist and emigrée living between London and Paris. Studying at the Royal College of Art, she had become Jacob Epstein's model and was later sponsored through his letters of recommendation to study at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris. It was here, sitting in the Dôme café near the Boulevard Montparnasse that the audacious, auburn-trussed woman was to meet dealer Pierre Colle. He asked her to model for André Derain who became consumed by the shape of her almond eyes and feline frame. Whilst drinking in the Dôme Isabel also caught the attention of Alberto Giacometti who after a number of days approached her. As she later recounted 'from that moment on, [Giacometti and I] met daily at five p.m. Months went by until he asked me to come to his studio to pose. I already knew he had changed my life forever' (I. Rawsthorne, quoted in V. Wiesinger, 'Isabel and Other Intimate Strangers', Isabel and Other Intimate Strangers: Alberto Giacometti, Francis Bacon, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2008, p. 216).
Through her associations with Giacometti, Rawsthorne went on to form acquaintances, friendships and romantic trysts with men including Balthus, Georges Bataille, Tristan Tzara and Picasso. Shortly after her death, Bacon even suggested that he had once been her lover: 'you know I also made love to Isabel Rawsthorne, a very beautiful woman who was Derain's model and Georges Bataille's girlfriend' (F. Bacon quoted in Paris Match, May 1992). Rawsthorne was the person to introduce Bacon to Giacometti in 1965. It was an important encounter for the two mutually admiring painters, each of whom achieved such a tangible, sculptural sense of reality in their works. As Bacon later recounted, 'I do absolutely understand what Giacometti meant when he said to me 'why ever change the subject? Because you could go on for the whole of your life painting the same subject' (F. Bacon quoted in D. Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon, London, 2000, pp. 236-237).