For a quarter of a century, Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon were the closest of friends. Their lives were characterized by an intense mutual scrutiny of each other and each other’s work, resulting in some extraordinary paintings and a deep but volatile relationship.
Although Francis Bacon was over a decade older than Lucian Freud, their meeting in the mid-1940s sparked an instant and lasting friendship between the two men. For the next 25 years, they would see each other almost every day. Freud’s second wife later recalled that she saw Bacon for dinner “nearly every night for more or less the whole of my marriage to Lucian. We also had lunch.”
When they weren’t painting, they spent much of their time at the Gargoyle Club (and later the Colony Room) in London’s Soho, drinking, gambling and arguing. They would sometimes run into other members of bohemian circles, such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Freud later recalled memorable instances such as waking up with his head in a toilet in one of their Soho haunts.
On one occasion, Freud lost everything he owned gambling, including his car, which he went home to fetch so that he could bet it. Bacon could be similarly profligate, sometimes literally throwing money at people who asked for it and buying extravagant rounds of drinks. He would say, “”Champagne for my real friends – real pain for my sham friends!”
In the studio, they constantly scrutinized each other’s work, offering comment and criticism but not always liking what they saw. As Bacon later put it, “Who can I tear to pieces, if not my friends? …If they were not my friends, I could not do such violence to them.” As two figurative artists working at a time when abstraction was the pervading fashion, their practices drew on these mutual processes of looking and criticizing to inform their painting.
However, although they were painting in the same tradition, their ways of working couldn’t have been more different. When Lucian Freud first sat for a portrait by Bacon in 1951, he was fascinated by the older artist’s hurried and spontaneous approach. Bacon’s paintings of Freud bear little physical resemblance to the sitter, but instead depict something closer to a psychological sketch or essence.
Conversely, when Bacon sat for Freud the following year he was amazed at how long Freud took with the painting. Bacon sat consistently for three months. For Freud, however, this was fast work; in 2007 he finished a portrait that had taken 16 solid months to complete. Sadly, Freud’s portrait of Bacon was stolen in 1988 when it traveled to an exhibition in Berlin. Freud later designed a “wanted” poster for his missing painting, and posted them around Berlin in the hope that it would be found, but it remains lost.
In 1969, Bacon painted a large triptych of Freud. It was sold in 2013 for $142 million, breaking the record for the most expensive artwork ever bought at auction. However, the painting which later made Freud and Bacon the darlings of the art market originally marked the end of the pair’s long friendship. Soon after it had been completed, Freud and Bacon fell out, reportedly over Bacon’s dislike of Freud’s wealth and snobbery. As two highly strung characters with a love of arguing, it is almost surprising that they didn’t fall out earlier.
Francis Bacon, Three Studies of Lucian Freud 1969
Although they respected each others early work, neither had any love for the others’ later creations. Freud caustically labeled Bacon’s paintings from the 1980s “ghastly”, and the feeling was entirely mutual. Nevertheless, although they eventually rejected each other’s friendship, they remained tied in the eyes of the public and the art market. Furthermore, and rather touchingly, Freud had an early work by Bacon hanging on his bedroom wall for most of his life. He said, “I’ve been looking at it for a long time now, and it doesn’t get worse. It really is extraordinary.”