If Bacon's art sought the height of painterly expression as a reflection of life, then the portraits represented the heart of that exploration. Francis Bacon's Study for Portrait is an arresting example of the artist's ability to convey authority over the genre of portraiture even while working in smaller scale. The beautiful composition of the present work is arranged around a schema of framing devices. The overlapping matrices of paint hatching and modulations of texture carefully organize the containment of the head within the frame which prepares the viewer from the outset that this portrayal is pensive, focused and enduring. The extraordinary compression of the image, together with the scumbled turquoise blue background heightens the drama and magnifies the prominence of the visage. The three-quarter profile of the subject is contemplative: incorporating a rich array of colors, techniques and textures the image brings the paint to life. Superbly combining both a dazzling display of painterly bravura and a multi-layered psychological intensity, Study for Portrait from 1979 exemplifies the salient features of Francis Bacon's tremendous output. The presence of Bacon's ubiquitous title prefix "Study" is laden with understatement and could not be more ironic: this painting is in fact an intensely charged minor masterpiece. It is a classic example from Bacon's seminal suite of small portrait heads in that it shows an intense and enclosed head flickering with the faintest movement.
Time and time again throughout his career, Francis Bacon returned to the portrait format steadfast in his belief that abstraction was merely aesthetic, and that art devoid of human content lacked emotional resonance. Along with the meticulously scrutinized faces of a handful of close friends, lovers and acquaintances, it was Bacon's own visage that became the arena for his most ferocious and original investigations into pictorial representation. Like any committed portraitist, Bacon was seeking to visually explain the variations of the human condition and capture the distinct psyche and intensity of his sitters. As Christoph Heinrich notes, "Bacon paints not only 'the person', but also sets out to convey the specific energy of very different individuals through painting." (Exh. Cat., Milan, Palazzo Reale, Bacon, 2008, p. 55). Although the subject of this painting has not been explicitly identified, it is important to appreciate it from the perspective of two well known characteristics of Bacon's contemporaneous oeuvre. First, in the period after the suicide of Bacon's lover George Dyer in 1971, the artist focused on self-portraiture, and depicted a close group of friends with particular intensity. Second, Bacon possesed an extraordinary capacity to invest his portraits with personal import, as noted by David Sylvester, "Bacon had something of Picasso's genius for transforming his autobiography into images with a mythic allure and weight." (David Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon, London, 2000, p. 186).
Looking to Francis Bacon's friends for the subject of this work, it becomes starkly clear that this physiognomy bears a striking resemblance to that of the dapper John Edwards, Bacon's close friend and platonic companion for many years. The first acknowledged depiction of Edwards was not to come until 1980, and perhaps this work painted a year earlier can be viewed as an inaugural foray into the important suite of paintings done in tribute to his friend. The vibrant yet calm palette utilized here by the artist takes on an independence of its own. The vitality of the interaction between colors, particularly the orange and the turquoise create momentum in the background that highlights the figure in the foreground and adds to the impact of the single head. The treatment of the present visage suggests a confident familiarity with the muse that may stem from a particularly warm assessment of the sitter by the artist. The gentle hollow of the cheek is tender and the general softness of the features describes a thoughtful countenance. Over one hundred and fifty photos of Edwards were found during the deconstruction of Bacon's Reece Mews studio in 1998, a far greater number than anyone else. John Russell claims that the single head portrait became "the scene of some of Bacon's most ferocious investigations. Just as a gunshot sometimes leaves an after-echo or parallel report, so these small concentrated heads carry their ghosts within them." (John Russell, Francis Bacon, London, 1993, p. 99).
Bacon preferred to paint in absentia relying predominantly on the combination of photographic material and memory to inform his image production. He viewed painting by nature as an artifice and felt that having the model before him suffocated spontaneous creative invention. Bacon spoke admirably of Picasso, especially his work of the 1920s and 1930s, in which he saw a syntax of "organic form that relates to the human image but is a complete distortion of it." (Francis Bacon quoted in Milan Kudera and France Borel, Bacon: Portraits and Self-Portraits, London, 1996, p. 10). Study for Portrait is an excellent example of the evolution of Bacon's understanding of Picasso and his own exploration in the realm of small portraiture. The beginning of the 1970s was marked by great sadness for the artist, following the death of his lover George Dyer. Portraits, both of self and of others, from the beginning of the decade are fraught with intense struggles of emotion and sadness. These deeply introspective moments gave way to works like the present – subtly emotional and constrained as opposed to the uneasy, dissonant and grotesquely contorted earlier examples. There is a beaming ray of reborn optimism that, almost certainly, lovingly renders the features of his new and trusted compatriot.
Oil on canvas
London, Marlborough Fine Art Ltd., Small Portrait Studies: Loan Exhibition, October - December 1993, cat. no. 3, illustrated in color
London, Olympia Exhibition Halls, Francis Bacon and Henry Moore, February - March 1996, illustrated in color
London, Gagosian Gallery, Francis Bacon: Triptychs, June - August 2006, p. 25, illustrated in color
14 x 12 in. 35.6 x 35.6 cm.
Marlborough Gallery, New York
Private Collection, United States
Christie's, New York, November 20, 1996, Lot 22
Christie's, London, February 5, 2003, Lot 3
Gagosian Gallery, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above in 2006