Just as the people around Francis Bacon formed the backbone of his life, so their portraits formed the backbone of his work. Although Bacon painted animals and landscapes in some of his works, it was the host of characters from his daily life who provided his main source of inspiration and fuelled his works. Many of these paintings featured his friends and lovers, be they dead or alive, and Study for a Portrait, executed in 1979, is marked with notable similarities to the pictures Bacon painted of his partner John Edwards, whom he had first met in 1974. Even through the haze of Bacon's hallmark distortions, these features are visible. Meanwhile, the arching shape of the heavy eyebrow in particular is echoed throughout Bacon's portraits of Edwards. This was also a feature of Bacon's own physiognomy, as seen in his self-portraits, meaning that Study for a Portrait appears as a strange and haunting fusion of the two men.
In fact, the distortions in Bacon's art lend the faces and flesh of his subjects an extra intensity. Bacon 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 colour 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 people's 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.)
It is these emanations that mark Study for a Portrait. They seem to blur the face, to bruise it as though Bacon's rendering a portrait is in itself some act of violence, some assault. However, Bacon was a master of rendering flesh and character, and this work condenses both into an almost coagulated mass of humanity.
Bacon's early works were clearly influenced by Surrealism, and its legacy remained visible in his work throughout his career. Instead of merely representing the world and people around him, he tried to displace everything, to rip it out of context so that it could be examined in a new and stark light. This functioned on several levels: in Study for a Portrait, the facial features appear to have been dragged and blurred, for instance the nose which seems to have little connection to the face. At the same time, Bacon's means of framing the work with bands of orange creates a palpable sense of placing and display, as though the head were in a cabinet. The blue and beige background increase this effect, giving no clues as to the location of the sitter and yet adding a sense of dirt, a bruised darkness whose texture throws the flesh into contrast and thrusts it into the viewer's space.