Over a career spanning more than six decades, Francis Bacon (1909-1992) focused almost exclusively on his distinctive, visceral style of portraiture, creating probing and psychologically intense works that explore the anxiety of the human condition.
Born in Dublin to parents of English descent, Bacon grew up on a farm in Ireland and had a difficult relationship with his father, especially as he negotiated his sexuality. He consequently fled to London at age 16 and spent several months traveling in Germany and France in 1927, where he was struck by life in the cultural capitals of Berlin and Paris, enjoying exhibitions of the avant-garde and new films at the cinema. Inspired by an exhibition of Pablo Picasso’s drawings at Galerie Paul Rosenberg, he began making his first drawings and watercolors. These collective experiences at a pivotal point in Bacon’s adolescence heavily impacted his development as an artist. Bacon painted sporadically in the late 1920s and 1930s while he earned his living as an interior decorator and designer based in London.
Very few of Bacon’s early paintings survive because he destroyed the majority of them, a pattern he continued throughout most of his career, but was particularly common at this early stage in his career. His first mature work, a small, ghostly composition entitled Crucifixion from 1933, betrays Bacon’s debt to Picasso at this time and also signals the interest in spectral, probing portraiture that will come to define his career. Following a faltering show in 1934 and his rejection by the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936, Bacon took a break from painting, but by the mid-1940s, he was painting full-time. In 1945, his breakthrough Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944)—a large, unnerving triptych featuring menacing, vaguely humanoid forms screeching in agony—was shown at a group exhibition at the Lefevre Gallery in London and launched the artist’s career. This monumental work signaled the direction Bacon would follow for the rest of his career as he continued to develop his distinctive, visceral style of painting that explored the violence and anxiety of humanity. As he famously remarked, “Painting is the pattern of one’s own nervous system being projected on the canvas.” In the late 1940s, Bacon began to paint on the back of verso of his primed canvases—preferring the rougher texture and painterly surface he achieved on the raw surface—a practice he would continue for the rest of his life.
Over the next five decades, Bacon devoted himself exclusively to the act of painting, making neither drawings nor preparatory studies. He often based his imagery on photographic sources, frequently referencing multiple images in his paintings. In the early 1950s, Bacon began his turbulent relationship with Peter Lacy and they traveled extensively throughout Europe. Throughout the 1950s, Bacon completed a series based on a reproduction of Diego Velázquez’s famous painting of Pope Innocent X in the Galleria Dora-Pamphilj in Rome. Obsessed with the Velázquez painting, he combined this source with various other references—ranging from film stills from Sergei Eisentein’s Battleship Potemkin to photographs of rare diseases of the mouth—in order to create a series of haunting papal portraits wrought with tension. These emotionally anguished portraits unleash the suppressed, sinister undertones of Velázquez’s original painting. These types of raw, evocative reinterpretations of historical artworks from the canon of Western art were prevalent throughout Bacon’s entire career. He continued working with Velázquez’s image through 1971.
Apart from a small series of paintings of animals from the 1950s and a handful of landscapes, Bacon’s oeuvre is comprised entirely of portraits and figure studies. In the late 1950s, Bacon began to make a shift in his style, abandoning the somber gray palette and mysterious, ghostly settings of his earlier work in favor of strident hues, a coarser application of paint, and bravura brushwork. Though he twisted and morphed his subjects’ features, he nevertheless achieved uncanny and suggestive likenesses. With a flurry of aggressive, seemingly chaotic brushstrokes, he simultaneously obscured the faces of his subjects and conveyed a haunting sense of their psychological depth and personality.
Mostly painting his close friends and lovers in addition to self-portraits, he preferred to work from photographs and from memory rather than from life, particularly enjoying using images taken by his friend the photographer John Deakin, whom he had known since 1948. In 1961, the same year he moved to South Kensington in London, where he would keep his studio for the remainder of his life, he began a series of small, emotionally concentrated portraits on 14 x 12 inch canvases, which would become one of the artist’s preferred formats. He frequently painted his portraits as diptychs and triptychs, believing that multiple canvases conveyed different emotional and psychological states and relationships, and thus fuller portraits of his subjects. Bacon’s tumultuous relationship with his lover, Peter Lacy, ended when Lacy died in 1962. The following year, around the time of Bacon's retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, Bacon met George Dyer who became his new lover and muse. Drawing mostly from Deakin’s photographs, Dyer became a recurrent subject of Bacon’s paintings in the 1960s. By tampering with Deakin’s original silver-gelatin prints—folding, crumpling, and tearing them—Bacon often created distortions in his source material which would inform his paintings.
Following Dyer’s death from overdose in 1971, Bacon painted a series of bleak “Black Triptychs” to express his grief over his lover’s passing and the end to their fraught relationship. Bacon focused on a series of self-portraits at this time, exploring his own mortality and the passage of time; he explained, “people have been dying around me like flies and I’ve had nobody else to paint.” In 1975, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York held a major retrospective for Bacon, the museum’s first for a living artist. The following year, Bacon began a relationship with a young Londoner, John Edwards, who began to feature prominently in his work. As Bacon’s career progressed, he simplified the settings in his paintings, paring down his compositions to focus directly on his subjects. Embracing a flatter handling of paint, he also began experimenting with a new medium in aerosol spray paint. At the height of his success, when his work was being exhibited around the world, he continued to evolve and refine his artistic practice. His unwavering dedication to creating expressive, visceral portraits defined his work until his death in 1992. After Bacon’s death, Edwards donated the artist’s longtime studio to the Huge Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art in Dublin, which was reconstructed and opened to the public in 2001.