Born: October 28, 1909 - Dublin, Ireland
Died: April 28, 1992 - Madrid, Spain
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Most Important Art
Influences and Connections
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"An illustrational form tells you through the intelligence immediately what the form is about, whereas a non-illustrational form works first upon sensation and then slowly leaks back into the fact."
Francis Bacon produced some of the most iconic images of wounded and traumatized humanity in post-war art. Borrowing inspiration from Surrealism, film, photography, and the Old Masters, he forged a distinctive style that made him one of the most widely recognized exponents of figurative art in the 1940s and 1950s. Bacon concentrated his energies on portraiture, often depicting habitues of the bars and clubs of London's Soho neighborhood. But his subjects were always portrayed as violently distorted, presented not as sociable and charismatic types but as isolated souls imprisoned and tormented by existential dilemmas. One of the most successful British painters of the twentieth century, Bacon's reputation was elevated further during the widespread return to painting in the 1980s, and after his death he was viewed by some as one of the world's most important painters.
Most Important Art
More Art Works
Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944)
Three Studies launched Bacon's reputation in the mid 1940s and shows the importance of biomorphic Surrealism in forging his early style. Bacon may have originally intended to incorporate the figures in a crucifixion, but his reference to the base of such a composition suggests that he imagined them as part of a predella, the scenes at the bottom of a traditional altarpiece. The twisted bodies are all the more frightening for their vaguely familiar human-like forms, which appear to stretch out toward the viewer in pain and supplication. The perspective lines in the background create a shallow space,alluding to captivity and torture. The figures are based upon the Furies, goddesses of revenge from Greek mythology that play an important role in the Oresteia, a three-part tragedy by Aeschylus. Bacon may have been drawn to the play's themes of guilt and obsession. The piece profoundly influenced images of the body in post-war British art.
Oil on board - Tate Gallery, London
Born in Dublin, Francis Bacon was named after his famous ancestor, the English philosopher and scientist. His father, Edward, served in the army and later took a job in the War Office during World War I. In an interview with critic David Sylvester, Bacon attributed the connotations of violence in his paintings to the turbulent circumstances of his early life. A British regiment was stationed near his childhood home, and he remembered constantly hearing soldiers practicing maneuvers. Naturally, his father's position in the War Office alerted him to the threat of violence at an early age. Returning to Dublin after the war, he came of age amidst the early campaigns of the Irish nationalist movement.
Young Francis had little formal education due to his severe asthma and the family's frequent traveling for Edward's post. Bacon's mother, Christina, lived the life of a socialite, and with his father away at work, Francis was often left to his own devices. Although he had four siblings, Bacon had a close relationship with his nanny, Jessie Lightfoot, who later came to live with him in London.
Family relations became increasingly tense as Bacon dealt with his emerging homosexuality. He was finally expelled from the house in 1926 after his father caught him trying on his mother's clothing. Surviving on a small allowance, Bacon lived the life of a vagrant, traveling around London, Berlin, and Paris. Despite his father's hopes, the change of scenery only freed Bacon to further explore his sexual identity; his time in Berlin proved particularly important in this regard and was later remembered by him as one of emotional awakening.
Bacon moved into a London apartment in the late 1920s and became involved with interior and furniture design. One of his patrons, the artist Roy de Maistre, became a mentor to Bacon and encouraged him to take up oil painting. Bacon modeled his early work after Picasso and the Surrealists, whose work he had seen on a trip to Paris. In 1933, Bacon exhibited Crucifixion, a skeletal black and white composition that already radiated the overtones of pain and fear that would become typical of his later work. The painting was simultaneously published in Herbert Read's book Art Now, and was quickly purchased by Sir Michael Sadler. Encouraged by his success, Bacon organized an exhibition of his own art the following year, but it received little attention. His paintings were also surveyed for inclusion in the International Surrealist Exhibition, organized by Herbert Read, but were rejected for not being surrealist enough. Discouraged, Bacon returned to a drifter's lifestyle and only painted sporadically between 1936 and 1944. He destroyed the majority of his work from before 1943, and only fifteen pieces from this early period have survived.
Due to his asthma, Bacon was unable to join the armed forces during WWII. He was accepted as a member of the Air Raid Precaution sector, which involved non-military search and rescue, only to be discharged when he fell ill from the dust and rubble. "If I hadn't been asthmatic, I might never have gone onto painting at all," he admitted. After the war, he took up painting with a renewed passion, regarding Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) as the true beginning of his work. The long necks, snapping mouths and contorted bodies featured in the painting express horror and suffering, a forceful commentary on the aftermath of the war. Bacon modeled the figures after photos of animals in motion, showing an early interest in the movement of the body that became a strong theme in his later painting. During its exhibition at Lefevre Gallery critics were mostly shocked by the blatant imagery, but the numerous reviews put Bacon into the spotlight.
His breakout success at the 1944 exhibition gained him further opportunities to show with Lefevre. Graham Sutherland, a friend and fellow exhibitor, also recommended him to the director of Hanover Gallery, where Bacon had his first solo exhibition in 1949. For this show Bacon painted a series entitled Heads, significant for being the first series to introduce two important motifs: the first was the scream, derived from a film still drawn from Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin in which an injured schoolteacher is shown screaming [in pain?]; the second is Diego Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X (c.1650), a painting Bacon only knew through reproductions (and which he would always maintain never to have seen in the original). The Heads series also made greater use of enclosing devices that suggest a pervasive sense of claustrophobia and anxiety, in this instance a shallow cage-like outline which Bacon had also employed in Three Studies from 1944.
In 1953, Hanover held an exhibition of Bacon's paintings that included Two Figures, a depiction of two men embracing in bed, an image that created a huge scandal. The composition was based upon photographs of wrestlers taken by the Victorian photographer Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904). Bacon preferred to work from photographs, relying on his friend John Deakin to take pictures of his subjects, but he was fascinated by Muybridge's attempts to capture and record bodies in motion. Bacon kept a collection of Muybridge's books in his studio as a constant source of reference, and even suggested that his intensive study of these sequential photographs triggered his own interest in working in series.
Bacon's tendency to derive inspiration from personal experiences also attracted him to portraiture. He often painted close friends (Lucian Freud, Isabel Rawsthorne, Michel Leiris), and the results convey a striking emotional and psychological intensity. One of Bacon's most famous subjects was his friend and lover George Dyer, who he met in 1964. During the course of their relationship, Bacon executed numerous portraits of Dyer that juxtaposed a strong musculature with a feeling of vulnerability, as in Portrait of George Dyer Crouching (1966), suggesting an affectionate yet protective attitude toward the younger man. Dyer suffered from alcoholism and episodes of depression, ultimately committing suicide on the night before Bacon's first retrospective in France in 1971.
Late Years and Death
After the Paris exhibition Bacon moved increasingly toward self-portraiture, claiming, "people around me have been dying like flies and there is nothing else to paint but myself." Continuing to work steadily, he completed a number of paintings in tribute to Dyer's memory. Many of these took the form of large format triptychs, including the well-regarded "Black triptych" series that recounted the details of Dyer's passing. In 1973, Bacon became the first contemporary English artist to have a major exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. His work was exhibited internationally throughout the later years of his life, including retrospectives at the Hirshhorn and the Tate Gallery. In the mid 1970s, Bacon met John Edwards, who replaced both Dyer and Deakin as Bacon's constant companion and photographer. In his last years, Bacon retreated from his formerly boisterous social life, focusing on his work and the platonic relationship with Edwards. He died of a heart attack in Madrid at the age of 81.
Bacon's unique interpretations and the intensely personal nature of his work make it difficult to visually trace his influence in contemporary art. Nevertheless, his paintings have inspired some of the most standout artists of this generation, including Julian Schnabel and Damien Hirst.
John Edwards, who inherited the estate, played an important role in promoting Bacon's work until his death in 2003. He was responsible for the donation of Bacon's studio to the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art in Dublin, and this was turned into a permanent exhibition and research archive.
Influences and Connections
Artists, Friends, Movements
Artists, Friends, Movements
Original content written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Useful Resources on Francis Bacon
| Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma |
By Michael Peppiatt
| Francis Bacon |
By John Russell
| The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon |
By Daniel Farson
| Sacred Monster |
By Jerry Saltz
| Francis Bacon: behind the myth |
By Rebecca Daniels
| The Dualist: Francis Bacon |
By David Cohen
| "Love Is the Devil" is a 1998 biopic that focuses on Bacon's relationship with George Dyer |
Directed by John Maybury, the movie is based on"The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon" by Daniel Farson
| Album Cover |
Prosanctus Inferi, a death metal band, uses a detail of Francis Bacon work Head I for the cover of their 2010 album, "Pandemonic Ululations of Vesperic Palpitation."