Throughout the 1960s and '70s Bacon painted his close friend Isabel Rawsthorne repeatedly. One of the most frequent subjects of his art, Bacon's portraits of Rawsthorne are today widely regarded as among his finest works. Bacon's art, which was strongly reliant on the human figure as the vehicle by which his unique and disturbing vision of life was expressed, was greatly dependent on portraiture and Bacon is well known to have chosen to paint only a select group of people whom he knew well. Peter Lacy, George Dyer, John Edwards, Henrietta Moraes Lucian Freud, Muriel Belcher along with Isabel Rawsthorne, were all close friends and lovers mainly drawn from the Soho bohemia of Bacon's 'gilded gutter life'. They were the gritty 'real-life' characters whose strong individuality and unique humanity Bacon drew on to fill the empty void of his often stark and alienating canvases.
Like character actors in modern dress taking part in some epic ancient Greek tragedy each of these unique and memorable individuals fulfils a vital role in Bacon's art. Their raw individuality, so powerfully captured and conveyed by Bacon's distortions and visceral use of paint, is also transformed into a physical prison. Each figure in Bacon's art is isolated and alone, trapped within their body in the midst of an alienating and empty abstract space. A raw and pulsating piece of meat animated solely by the electric pulse of their nervous system, they are unique animals yet also ultimately, in Bacon's hands, part of an ugly and generic humanity.
It was largely because of the intense and specific nature of Bacon's powerful and disturbing art that the artist only felt comfortable painting those individuals he knew well. What these friends and lovers had in common for Bacon and what made him able to paint them so successfully was that he knew them. He had lived alongside them. They were people and faces he had not only seen, but observed and scrutinized in everyday life, taking in their variety of expression and the way they moved or how they responded to a whole range of differing circumstances recording each in a series of photographic-like flashes that stuck in his memory like mental snap-shots which captured the uniqueness of their innate individuality. In the studio, Bacon would paint from a photograph which would help to prompt this visual memory and, as he once explained to David Sylvester, enable him to 'drift' from the outward appearance more freely. "Even in the case of friends who will come and pose,' he recalled, 'I've had photographs taken for portraits because I very 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 don'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. I think that, if I have the presence of the image in there, I am not able to drift so freely as I am through the photographic image. This may be just my own neurotic sense but I find it less inhibiting to work from them through memory and their photographs than actually having them seated there before me.' (David Sylvester (ed.), The Brutality of Fact, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1990, p. 40)
Bacon's portraits of Isabel Rawsthorne are among the most powerful and successful of his works because of all of the friends he painted, Isabel Rawsthorne was one of the closest and, perhaps with the exception of Muriel Belcher, the woman with whom he felt most comfortable. With her strength of character and her illustrious history as a model and mistress of several great twentieth century artists she was also, in direct contrast to Bacon's former lovers Peter Lacy and George Dyer for example, a powerfully independent character whom Bacon not only respected but also to some extent looked up to. When Bacon bragged to Paris Match , 'You know I also made love to Isabel Rawsthorne, a very beautiful woman who was Derain's model and Georges Bataille's girlfriend', he, perhaps unwittingly, revealed this aspect of his relationship with her. Other than one other youthful attempt at heterosexuality - with a prostitute who reportedly ate chips while Bacon attempted intercourse - Rawsthorne, as Bacon's friend and biographer Michael Peppiatt tells us, appears to have been the only woman with whom Bacon ever even attempted to have sex. (Michael Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, London, 1996 p. 17)
Rawsthorne, was born Isabel Nichols in the East End of London in 1912 the daughter of a master mariner. She grew up in Liverpool and attended Liverpool School of Art and later studied at the Royal Academy Schools. A model and mistress of Sir Jacob Epstein, by whom she had a child, she moved to Paris when she was 22 where she worked in Derain's studio, often modeling for him as well. "I adored Derain' she once recalled, "he was the most French person you could ever meet. That's how I learned the language.' Through Derain, Isabel Delmer, as she then was, met Giacometti, who also took her as his model and mistress. According to Giacometti's biographer James Lord, Giacometti recalled Isabel standing at midnight on the Boulevard Saint-Michel - remote and imperious - and it was this image that gave rise to his many sculptures of extraordinarily thin, unreachable women. In addition to this, Giacometti's painting Isabel dans l'atelier, and two sculptures Isabel I of 1936 and Isabel 2 from 1938-9 are direct portraits of her.
It was through Giacometti that Isabel also came to be painted by Picasso. 'Alberto worked all night,' she told Bacon biographer Daniel Farson, 'but at five every evening we drank at the Lipp. Picasso used to sit at the table opposite and one day, after staring at me particularly hard, he jumped up and said to Alberto: 'Now I know how to do it.' He dashed back to his studio to paint my portrait - with little red eyes, wild hair and a vertical mouth - one of five he painted from memory." (Daniel Farson The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, London, 1993, p. 165)
Isabel was separated from Giacometti by the outbreak of war in 1939 but she joined him again briefly in 1945 before marrying the composer Constant Lambert. When Lambert died in 1951 she married his friend and fellow composer Alan Rawsthorne. She met Bacon in the early 1960s and soon became one of his closest friends as well as a frequent figure in his portraiture. Strong-willed, fiercely independent and greedy for life Isabel Rawsthorne had a warm, and distinguished face that evidently fascinated Bacon. It wore, what Daniel Farson once described as a 'surprised expression of someone who has just heard a marvelous joke and wishes to share it.' (op. cit. p. 166) In addition to her burgeoning friendship with the artist Rawsthorne was also particularly instrumental in strengthening Bacon's ties with the city of Paris during the 1960s. Like Bacon she was a friend of the poet and writer Michel Leiris and it was through her that Bacon, a great admirer of Giacometti, whom he once declared to be 'the greatest living influence on my work', came to meet the Swiss sculptor, on two occasions in London in 1965.
Painted in 1966 Three Studies of Isabel Rawsthorne is a return to the subject that Bacon had first developed in two triptychs the year before; one on a dark and one on a light background. Split into three separate sections, this 1966 triptych is a composite work that develops like a series of film stills with each portrait operating like a snap shot of Rawsthorne caught in motion. Each portrait depicts a radically different facial expression that Bacon has enhanced by the use of dramatic and seemingly chance-driven splashes of white paint to articulate a sense of nervous movement and frozen animation. These deliberate, so-called 'distortions' are used by Bacon to emphasize the living nature of Rawsthorne's flesh and to animate the portrait. Sweeping marks that link her recognisable but illustrative features to her essentially abstract surroundings, they reinforce the notion that collectively the three frames of the portrait bracket something of the essence of the raw reality of life that animates all humanity. As Bacon himself expressed it, "Whether the distortions which I think sometimes bring the image over more violently are damage is a very questionable idea. I don't think it is damage. You may say it's damaging if you take it on the level if illustration. But not if you take it on the level of what I think of as art. One brings the sensation and feeling of life over the only way one can. I don't say it's a good way, but one brings it over at the most acute point one can.' (op. cit. Sylvester, p. 43)
Through the seeming 'damage' or 'violence' of these 'distortions' and the 3-D-like fragmentation of the portrait into three constantly shifting parts, a composite but recognisable and animated image of Rawsthorne asserts itself in our minds. It is an image that Rawsthorne herself described as "fabulously accurate'. (op. cit. Peppiatt, p. 208.) Bacon, somewhat more cautiously described this successful painterly process as being able to 'clear away one or two (of reality's) screens'.