Isabel Rawsthorne occupies a position unlike any other within Francis Bacon’s art. Of all his female subjects and many friends, she was the woman to whom he felt closest: the extraordinary number of portraits after her likeness command a rare heroic dimension at once testament to Bacon’s affection and reflective of Isabel’s remarkable magnetism as a person. Muse, mistress and friend of the Parisian avant-garde during the 1930s, Isabel was a compelling personality and alluring subject for André Derain, Pablo Picasso and most significantly, Alberto Giacometti, with whom she shared a drawn-out love affair. Undoubtedly enamoured by her sophisticated Parisian connections and impressed by her imposing presence, she was an irresistible source of inspiration for Bacon during the 1960s. Indeed, though indisputably homosexual, Bacon was far from impervious to her charms. After she died in 1992, he famously divulged to Paris Match
: "You know I also made love to Isabel Rawsthorne, a very beautiful woman who was Derain's model and Georges Bataille's girlfriend" (Daniel Farson, The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon
, London 1994, p. 167). Executed seventeen years after they first met, Three Studies of Isabel Rawsthorne
utterly encapsulates this defining relationship, gracefully transmuting strong, handsome features with the fractured assault of Bacon’s dramatic painterly shorthand. Embodying the penultimate example from a series of five triptych studies of Isabel painted between 1965 and 1968 in the artist's iconic 14 by 12 inch canvases, the present work echoes with remarkable proximity the very first small-scale triptych in sharing a similar colour palette of dark ground and contrasting crimson red. Bought from Marlborough Fine Art by Sir Robert and Lisa Sainsbury almost immediately after its completion, this work now resides in the public collection of the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia. Following this first triptych, the cumulative experience of a year spent intently studying and translating her form is evident in the masterfully swift and spontaneous yet controlled facture of the present work. According to a diary recovered from Francis Bacon’s studio after his death, the present work was executed in just under two weeks between 21 October and 4 November 1966 (Ewbanks Auctioneers, Surrey, 2007, Lot 2004). Three Studies of Isabel Rawsthorne
therefore stands at the very epicentre of intense focus on her likeness, a period between 1966 and 1967 during which Bacon would produce some of the most incredible portrayals of his career. Alongside the present work from 1966, the magisterial Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne
in the collection of the Tate, London, and the powerfully animalistic Study of Isabel Rawsthorne,
of the Pompidou Centre, Paris, would preface two of the most heroic and inventive of Bacon’s portraits, works both painted in 1967 and housed in the Nationalgalerie, Berlin: Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne Standing in a Street in Soho
and Three Studies for Isabel Rawsthorne
. Simultaneously demonstrative of her profound power as one of the most significant muses of the Twentieth Century and Bacon’s inimitable powers as a portraitist, Three Studies of Isabel Rawsthorne
crystallises a remarkable symbiosis between painter and subject.
An Artist’s Muse
“How I loved Paris – it gave me everything”
Isabel Rawsthorne cited in: Daniel Farson, The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon
, London 1994, p. 166.
The daughter of a master mariner, Isabel Nicholas was born in East London in 1912. As a child, her father’s work moved the family to Liverpool where she started her education at Liverpool School of Art. By the time she turned eighteen however, her father’s unexpected death at sea and mother’s subsequent emigration to Canada left Isabel to make her own way. After winning a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy she secured her return to London, where, to subsidise her own artistic training, she began modelling. Possessing striking, exotic features and a tall slender frame, a string of dalliances and affairs naturally ensued. When Isabel became assistant and model for Jacob Epstein she also became his lover, and by the age of twenty-two had given birth to his child. The Epstein family adopted the child and Isabel was encouraged to continue her studies in Paris. By 1934 after taking life classes at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Montparnasse Isabel began socialising at Le Dôme Café and Le Café Flore in Saint-Germain-des-Prés where she was to meet the most prominent figures of the avant-garde, including the immediately enthralled André Derain for whom she modelled: “I adored Derain – he was the most French person you could ever meet. That’s how I learned the language” (Isabel Rawsthorne cited in: Daniel Farson, Op. cit., p. 165). However it was a relationship with Alberto Giacometti that would prove the most significant of these years in Paris. Following their first encounter at Le Dôme one evening, Giacometti and Isabel met daily. In her memoirs she recalled, “I already knew he had changed my life forever” (Isabel Rawsthorne cited in: Véronique Wiesinger, ‘Isabel and Other Intimate Strangers’ in: Exhibition Catalogue, New York, Gagosian Gallery, Isabel and Other Intimate Strangers
, 2008, p. 217). In return, she was to have an enormous impact on the trajectory of Giacometti’s practice. The countless portraits in two-dimensions and in the round after Isabel traverse a great transformation in Giacometti’s interpretation of the human form, indeed, it was a vision of Isabel standing in the distance on the Boulevard St Michel that inspired the corpus of small naked women planted on cubic bases, a precursor to his iconic mature style. Via Giacometti, she was received into the inner circle of the French intelligentsia: alongside Jean-Paul Sartre, Georges Bataille, and Simone de Beauvoir, Isabel forged particularly close friendships with the painter Balthus and the eminent man of letters Michel Leiris and his wife Louise – all figures, it must be noted, that Bacon held in the greatest esteem. Though she had married Sefton Delmer in 1936, a foreign correspondent for the Daily Express
, Isabel and Giacometti sustained an agonizing and protracted love affair that was to last over ten years; the intensity of their relationship only diminished with Isabel’s return to England following the Nazi occupation of Paris in 1940.
By the end of the Second World War Isabel had divorced Delmer and following a number of sojourns in Paris with Giacometti married for the second time - in 1947 she wedded the composer and conductor Constant Lambert. Working alongside her husband, Isabel designed sets for many of the Sadler’s Wells ballet and opera productions. Indeed, these years during the late 1940s were devoted to developing her own art practice away from the indulgence of Paris’ cafés. Having established representation by Erica Brausen, she held her first solo exhibition at the Hanover Gallery in 1949, the very same year of Bacon’s seminal one-man show. First introduced by Brausen, it was during the months of preparation running up to their respective exhibitions that Bacon and Isabel became friends. Having returned from Monaco in late 1948 to complete the group of paintings that would secure his critical arrival, Bacon, undoubtedly in awe of Isabel’s Parisian connections, struck up one of the most important relationships of his life. For Bacon, Paris would always represent the very epicentre of the art world; though this seat of power was displaced to New York during the 1950s, Bacon’s love affair with the city never diminished and he considered the honour of exhibiting at the Grand Palais in 1971 his very highest achievement. This undiluted respect was anchored to the artist’s intense admiration for the pioneers of modern art who emerged from Paris during the early Twentieth Century: where Picasso was the catalyst for Bacon’s very first paintings of the 1920s, he attributed Giacometti with effecting the most profound influence upon his work. Giacometti’s dissolution of human appearance down to its very essence was for Bacon the closest parallel to his own ambitions, while the grandiosity of the older artist’s austere diffidence towards the comforts of success undoubtedly impressed Bacon’s generation - the chaos of 7 Reece Mews takes on emulatory significance in homage to Giacometti’s cave-like Montparnasse studio. Not only seduced by these Parisian links however, like his heroes before him, Bacon was captivated by Isabel’s magnetic charisma, disarming personality, and commanding presence. With feline grace and striking features, she was an attractive subject for an artist. Isabel’s appearance naturally leant itself to intense scrutiny and sustained intrigue: her high forehead, long cheekbones and arched eyebrows are as prominent in Giacometti’s busts as they are translated almost thirty years later in Bacon’s highly distorted yet astonishingly accurate portrait heads.
Constant Lambert died in 1951 and shortly after Isabel remarried, settling with Lambert’s close friend and fellow composer, Alan Rawsthorne. During this decade and into the next, Bacon and Isabel became close. Her friendships with eminent figures from the Parisian art world strengthened Bacon’s own ties to Paris; the dinner parties hosted by Isabel helped cement Bacon’s relationships, particularly with Giacometti and Michel Leiris, whom Bacon would later portray in paint with Leiris returning the compliment in one of the finest word-portraits of the artist ever penned. Bacon and Isabel spent the 1960s socialising in the same circle, lunching at Bernard Walsh’s seafood restaurant, Wheeler’s, spending days and long evenings drinking at the George, The French Pub or at the renowned Colony Room run by Soho legend and fellow portrait subject, Muriel Belcher. As central protagonists within this ‘gilded gutter life’, Isabel, Muriel and the gregarious Henrietta Moraes would collectively come to define Bacon’s treatment of the female form - casting a break from the male dominated paintings of the 1940s and ‘50s. Their presence would usher in a period retrospectively perceived as Bacon’s second great artistic peak: where the first belongs to the moment initiated by his series of 1949 Heads
, the second coincides with Bacon’s portrayal of his Soho clique and the initiation of the small scale portraits from 1962 onwards. Where Henrietta, sprawled naked on a bed, occupies the tradition of the female nude, and Muriel, with her high hairline and sharp wit, is portrayed as sphinx-like in her wizened demeanour, Isabel embodies the heroic in Bacon’s art like no other individual: the sheer exuberance and almost mythical character of her life and Bacon’s profound respect for her radiates unreservedly from these remarkable portraits.All the Pulsations of a Person
Across Bacon’s oeuvre, Isabel Rawsthorne is depicted as indefatigably enigmatic, exuding dignity and stature to match the artist’s high regard and deep affection. One of the finest paintings of Bacon’s career is the arrestingly bright blue full-figure portrait Isabel Rawsthorne Standing in a Street in Soho,
1967, in the Nationalgalerlie Berlin. Standing vigilant and exuding assurance testament to a life’s worth of experience, Rawsthorne is imbued with a distinctly masculine heroism. In the words of John Russell: “that proud, watchful, experienced figure could be a captain on leave: a lifelong single handed adventurer stepping out from a blue-awning after an assuredly good luncheon, with a rakish open roadster of antique design drawn up at the kerb and a searching unembarrassed glance at the people who have stopped to watch him/her get in and drive off” (John Russell, Francis Bacon
, London 2001, p. 125). Unusually attuned to the moods of a woman, Bacon felt a particular affection for Isabel, and even portrayed her facing George Dyer, the artist's most profound love interest and model, in a small portrait diptych from 1967. Bacon revealed this warmth in 1973 when speaking to Hugh M. Davies about the Sainsbury Collection triptych: “Because the others were too torn apart, in the third one I wanted to give the impression of her real physical beauty - with drink and age it’s gone but she was very beautiful” (the artist cited in: Hugh M. Davies, ‘Interviewing Bacon, 1973’ in: Martin Harrison, Ed., Francis Bacon: Centenary Essays,
Göttingen 2009, p. 101). A similarity of effect is apparent in the present triptych: where the first two canvases possess an almost animal aggression, the third canvas delivers a graceful and flowing articulation of flattering forms undeniably characteristic of the many photographs of Rawsthorne taken by John Deakin. As outlined by Michael Peppiatt, “If a magnificent sense of dignity emanates from these studies [of Isabel], it is because the artist’s affection is greater, but only just, than the destructive fury with which he dislocated and twisted every feature” (Michael Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma
, London 2009, p. 257). As Peppiatt goes on to illustrate, Bacon’s portraits are an enactment of his own thoughts on the nature of real friendship; the artist is famously quoted saying: "I’ve always thought of friendship as where two people really tear each other apart", indeed, in his portraits Bacon mercilessly pulls, rips and cleaves the intricacies of his friends’ likenesses until their flayed countenances distil some essential physical and pictorial truth (Ibid). In the present work the quick-fire sequence of three alternating views from left to right each deliver a fury of contradicting examinations nonetheless unified by an overarching faithfulness to Isabel’s essential character.
Exploiting familiarity to his advantage, Bacon freely manipulated and wrestled with the physiognomy of those closest to him to engender an elemental painterly distillation in which facture and expression are resolutely interlocked. Representation is deconstructed to the point where features become indiscernable and physical states are superimposed. Nevertheless, the end result is unmistakable in subject. As outlined by John Russell: “although the features as we know them in everyday life may disappear from time to time in a chromatic swirl of paint or be blotted from view by an imperious wipe with a towel, individual aspects of the sitter are shown to us, by way of compensation, with an intensity not often encountered in life” (John Russell, Op. cit., p. 124). As prevalent within Three Studies of Isabel Rawsthorne,
the particular arch of her brow, the high cheekbones and handsome profile are compellingly portrayed. Dramatic blows of white are balanced against striking contrasts of red, orange and pink, accented with blue and thickly stippled with the smear of a cashmere sweater. The delicate treatment of the eyes and fluid accent of silhouette are set in dialogue with an almost porcine and mask-like aggression to deliver unbridled vitality of presence. They form a visual parity to Peppiatt’s impression of the fascinating variance of her character and expression as a person: “Her face would assume a look of extreme indignation, followed by one of raucous good humour, and then a glance of seduction, all dropped like masks and as rapidly replaced” (Michael Peppiatt, Op. cit., p. 251).
Three Studies of Isabel Rawsthorne
illustrates a seismic shift in Bacon’s career at the beginning of the 1960s: moving away from emblematic forms - such as those extrapolated from Velazquez’s Pope, Muybridge’s figures in motion, Van Gogh, and Eisenstein - the impetus to harness abstract forces and emanations beyond the realm of appearance began to consume Bacon’s practice. Realising the need for a physical armature upon which to hang this ‘energy’ and ‘living quality’, Bacon turned to his inner social circle. Alongside Isabel Rawsthorne, the ensuing deluge of likenesses after Lucian Freud, Muriel Belcher, Henrietta Moraes and George Dyer acted as the predominant physical catalysts for Bacon’s translation of an inner bodily reality. With some reflection in 1983, Bacon gave clear expression to this inquiry: “The living quality is what you have to get. In painting a portrait the problem is to find a technique by which you can give over all the pulsations of a person… The sitter is someone of flesh and blood and what has to be caught is their emanation… I don’t know whether it would be possible to do a portrait of somebody just by making a gesture of them. So far it seems that if you are doing a portrait you have to record the face. But with the face you have to try and trap the energy that emanates from them” (the artist cited in: David Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon
, London 2000, p. 98). During the 1960s Bacon commissioned his drinking partner, friend and Vogue photographer John Deakin to photograph Rawsthorne and the other protagonists of his Soho enclave to be used as shorthand visual cue cards. By the mid-‘60s, Bacon’s established practice of reconstituting and melding photographic source imagery with his own memory and powers of invention had long disposed of the need to paint from life. As he told David Sylvester, "I've had photographs taken for portraits because I very much prefer working from the photographs... It's true to say I couldn't attempt to do a portrait from photographs of somebody I don't know. But, if I both know them and have photographs of them, I find it easier to work than actually having their presence in the room" (David Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact, Interviews with Francis Bacon
, London 1990, p. 40). Alongside Rawsthorne, Bacon’s portrait subjects were people he knew exceptionally well; by wielding extraordinary powers of imagination concurrent with his own ‘memory traces’ in tandem with the catalogue of photographs taken by John Deakin, Bacon produced some of the most arresting portraits of the Twentieth Century, and of these, the small portrait heads constitute among the most remarkable portrayals of human appearance ever translated in oil on canvas.
Very much related to Picasso’s reworkings of the human head initiated in 1907, these works combine a translation of successive movement inspired by Muybridge’s The Human Figure in Motion
, as well as Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase.
Emulating mug-shot proportions of a photobooth portrait, the unadorned immediacy of Bacon’s small portraits radiate endurance, nervousness, and involuntary mannerisms: these heads truly embody Bacon’s desire to paint as close to the ‘nervous system’ as possible.
To quote William Feaver: “‘Studies’ or exercises though they are, these small paintings are central to Bacon’s art. The scale of a bathroom mirror-image makes them one-to-one, and when they are paired, or grouped in threes, the differences animate them. No rooms, no thrones, no perfunctory landscape settings are needed. Without context or posture, the heads have nothing to do but look, sometimes at one another, and wait” (William Feaver, ‘That’s It’ in: Exhibition Catalogue, London, Marlborough Fine Art Ltd., Francis Bacon 1909 - 1992 Small Portrait Studies
, 1993, p. 6). A series and format first settled upon in 1961 and maintained until the very end, these intimately scaled works form the very staple of Bacon’s mature practice, acting as the primary locus for the ‘brutality of fact’ and most immediate site for loosening the ‘valves of feeling’ so frequently referred to by the artist. Unaccompanied and isolated within a dark emerald green ground, with Three Studies of Isabel Rawsthorne
our sight is rapt by the visceral and psychological charge of Bacon’s distorted yet searingly honest vision of humanity.
Delivering a masterful essay on the analysis of facial landscape, Three Studies of Isabel Rawsthorne is a deeply personal portrayal of one of Francis Bacon's closest friends. Of the handful of female confidants painted by Bacon, portaying only those he knew intimately, Isabel Rawsthorne provided unique focus for the artist: her astounding connections with the Paris art world strengthened Bacon’s own and his profound admiration for her inspired a greater number of small portrait canvases than any of his other friends. Painted over two decades after they first met, this spectacular portrayal illuminates a friendship that lasted until the very end of their lives - in 1992 they died within months of each other. Three Studies of Isabel Rawsthorne consummately illuminates Bacon’s breathtaking ability to navigate the very threshold of abstraction and figuration: remarkable portraits as unrestrained and exuberant as Isabel Rawsthorne’s uninhibited and extraordinary life.