Mouth as Muse: Bacon’s Fascination Became a Lifetime of Painting

“I like, you may say, the glitter and color that comes from the mouth, and I’ve always hoped in a sense to be able to paint the mouth like [Claude] Monet painted a sunset.” –Francis Bacon

Postwar Irish painter Francis Bacon (1909-1992) is infamous for his detailed depictions of figures’ mouths, often wide open and screaming.

But, his colorful shrieks are more than imaginative. Bacon was an ample researcher, and some pretty gruesome real life images are hidden in his artworks.

“The Massacre of the Innocents,” Nicolas Poussin, 1628-1629.

Bacon’s oral fascination grew when he moved from Ireland to Chantilly, France at age 17.

In the Musée Condé, he encountered his earliest art influence: The Massacre of the Innocents by Nicolas Poussin. He called it “probably the best human cry ever painted.”

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Left: Still from "Battleship Potemkin," directed by S.M. Eisenstein, 1925. Right: Study for the Nurse (detail), Francis Bacon, 1957

Left: Still from “Battleship Potemkin,” directed by S.M. Eisenstein, 1925. Right: Study for the Nurse (detail), Francis Bacon, 1957

Popular culture also permeated Bacon’s obsession with a trip to the art movie house.

The film “Battleship Potemkin” was a self-proclaimed “catalyst” for his artwork and the cry of an Odessa nurse would be direct inspiration later in his career.

Left: Image from “Atlas-Manuel des maladies de la bouche,” first edition 1894. Right: Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, central panel detail, Francis Bacon, 1944.

Finally, he scoured the libraries of Paris for a scientific authority.

In Atlas-Manuel des maladies de la bouche, a French translation of an 1894 German medical textbook, Bacon found his ultimate source material: hand-colored plates of various mouth diseases in all their sore-filled, slobbery glory.

These diseased and distorted oral images would shape the creative canon of this existentialist artist for the next six decades.

“They always interested me,” he said, “And the colors were beautiful.”

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Learn more about Bacon’s life and career here:

Julian Bell wrote extensively about Bacon’s scientific source material in this 2007 article for the New York Review of Books: