Francis Bacon: the Life of an Artist

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Francis Bacon

The art of British artist, Francis Bacon explores adult themes/subjects in his wildly inventive and tortured paintings. His work reflects a life lived to extravagant extremes.

Francis Bacon was born in 1909 in Dublin to English parents. Edward, his father was a race-horse trainer and a veteran of the Boer War. His mother was Christina Firth, a steel heiress, who lived and loved the life of a socialite. His childhood was blighted by severe asthma from which he suffered all his life. Bacon was a shy child, who enjoyed dressing up, this, and his effeminate manner, infuriated his father. Bacon had little formal education.

Family relations became abusive and brutal in his teenage years as Bacon came to terms with his emerging homosexuality. In 1926 Bacon’s father, repelled by his homosexuality, threw him out of the family home and Bacon aged just 17 arrived in London with a weekly allowance of £3 from his mother.

In 1927 he moved to Berlin then to Paris where he was impressed by Picasso’s 1927 exhibition. As a consequence, he attended the free art academies in Paris and began to learn to draw and paint. Bacon’s 1933 Crucifixion painting was his first painting to attract public attention.

Francis Bacon was exempted from military service in the 2nd World War because of his asthma. In 1944 he fully commit himself to painting and created Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, which he considered as the start of his career.

By 1946 Bacon was a central figure in the artistic milieu of post-war Soho, and spent much of his time eating, drinking and gambling with Lucian Freud and friends. His first solo exhibition was in 1949 at the Hanover Gallery. The show entitled ‘Heads’, introduced two important motifs: the scream and Diego Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X.

In 1953, the Hanover Gallery held an exhibition of his paintings that included Two Figures, a depiction of two men embracing in bed. The image created a huge scandal, as homosexuality was not decriminalised until 1967 in the UK.

Bacon’s 1957 exhibition was inspired by Van Gogh’s ‘The Painter on the Road to Tarascon. These paintings incorporated a more vibrant palette and bolder brushstrokes than previous work. Bacon had his first major retrospective at the Tate Gallery, London in 1962. In 1963-4, Bacon’s international reputation was confirmed with his retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

During the Sixties despite his heightened success, he refused the Carnegie Institute Award in 1967 and donated his Rubens Prize towards the restoration of Florence following the flood of 1966.

In October 1971 Francis Bacon was given the rare honour for living artist of a retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris. The exhibition was a spectacular success, but two days before it opened his long-time lover George Dyer committed suicide.

By the mid 1970s, Bacon’s reputation, as the greatest British painter since J.M.W. Turner was confirmed. His second Tate Gallery retrospective took place in 1985.

In April 1992, Bacon was hospitalised in Madrid with pneumonia exacerbated by asthma. He died on 28 April and was cremated in Spain.

In 2013 his painting “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” became the most expensive work sold at auction – $142.4 million at Christie’s in New York.