The Illustrious Exhibition History of Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus
  • 1985
  • 1989
  • 1990
  • 1995
  • 2008
  • 2009
  • 2019
  • 1985
    The present work installed in the exhibition Francis Bacon at the Tate Gallery, London, 1985

    Image © Tate, London / Art Resource, NY
    Art © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. / DACS, London / ARS, NY 2020
  • 1989
    The present work, installed in the exhibition Francis Bacon at the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., 1989

    Art © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. / DACS, London / ARS, NY 2020
  • 1990
    The present work, installed in the exhibition Francis Bacon at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1990

    Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY
    Art © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. / DACS, London / ARS, NY 2020
  • 1995
    The present work, installed in the exhibition From London: Bacon, Freud, Kossoff, Andrews, Auerbach, Kitaj at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, 1995

    Art © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. / DACS, London / ARS, NY 2020
  • 2008
    The present work installed alongside Triptych, 1976 (Private Collection, sold May 2008 for $86,281,000) and Triptych Inspired by T. S. Eliot’s Poem ‘Sweeney Agonistes,’ 1967 (Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C) in the exhibition Francis Bacon at the Tate Britain, London, 2008

    Image © Tate, London / Art Resource, NY
    Art © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. / DACS, London / ARS, NY 2020
  • 2009
    The present work installed in the exhibition Francis Bacon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

    Art © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. / DACS, London / ARS, NY 2020
  • 2019
    The present work installed in the exhibition Bacon en toutes lettres at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2019

    Image Courtesy of the Astrup Fearnley Collection
    Art © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. / DACS, London / ARS, NY 2020
“As for my latest triptych and a few other canvases painted after I re-read Aeschylus, I tried to create images of the sensations that some of the episodes created inside me. I could not paint Agamemnon, Clytemnestra or Cassandra, as that would have been merely another kind of historical painting when all is said and done. Therefore, I tried to create an image of the effect that was produced inside me.”
Francis Bacon cited in: “Homage to Bacon,” Tate Etc. 14, Autumn 2008, online

Francis Bacon, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944
Image © Tate, London / Art Resource, NY
Art © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. / DACS, London / ARS, NY 2020

Rife with tragic allusion and fraught with chilling grandeur, Francis Bacon’s spellbinding Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus evinces the artist’s singular translation of psychological tension into painted form. A magisterial treatise on the human experience, the present work wrestles with timeless philosophical preoccupations: mercy versus punishment, justice versus vengeance, and sacrifice versus self-preservation—concerns which consumed Bacon for the entirety of his life. Executed in 1981, at the zenith of his prodigious career, Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus provides a masterful return to the same classical text that inspired Three Studies for Figures at the Base of the Crucifixion, 1944, which announced Bacon’s debut on the world stage and is now in the Tate Collection, London. One of just 28 large-scale triptychs in Bacon’s oeuvre—nearly half of which reside in museum collections—the present work emerges from the Astrup Fearnley Museet, having resided in the museum’s collection for over thirty years. Selected for inclusion in nearly every major exhibition of Bacon’s work since its execution, Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus has been exhibited at the Tate Gallery in London, the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Galleria Borghese in Rome, the Fondation Beyeler in Basel, and most recently the celebrated exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, Bacon en toutes lettres. Paradigmatic of the artist’s painterly bravura and pictorial authority, Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus elevates the personal to the universal, transmitting a palpable vulnerability through profound aesthetic concision.

Francis Bacon's Large Scale Triptychs in Notable Collections
Bacon's triptychs are among the most iconic works of the Twentieth Century, and are housed in some of the greatest institutional and private collections worldwide.
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  • Three Studies for a Crucifixion, 1962.
    Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York Francis Bacon
    Triptych, 1991. The Museum of Modern Art, New York Francis Bacon

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  • Three Figures in a Room, 1964.
    Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
    Francis Bacon

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  • Crucifixion, 1965.
    Bayerische Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich Francis Bacon

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  • Triptych Inspired by T. S. Eliot's Poem 'Sweeney Agonistes', 1967.
    Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.
    Francis Bacon

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  • Two Figures Lying on a Bed with Attendants, 1968. Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art Francis Bacon

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  • Three Studies of Lucian Freud, 1969. Elaine Wynn, sold November 2013 for $142,405,000 Francis Bacon

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  • Triptych - Studies from the Human Body, 1970. Collection of Esther Grether, Basel, Switzerland Francis Bacon

    Three Portraits: Posthumous Portrait of George Dyer, Self Portrait, Portrait of Lucian Freud, 1973. Collection of Esther Grether, Basel, Switzerland Francis Bacon
    Triptych, May-June 1973, 1973. Collection of Esther Grether, Basel, Switzerland Francis Bacon
    Three Studies of Figures on Beds, 1972. Collection of Esther Grether Basel, Switzerland Francis Bacon
    In Memory of George Dyer, 1971. Fondation Beyeler, Basel Francis Bacon
    Three Studies of Male Back, 1970. Kunsthaus, Zurich Francis Bacon

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  • Triptych, 1970. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Francis Bacon

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  • Triptych August 1972, 1972. Tate Collection, United Kingdom Francis Bacon
    Second Version of Triptych 1944, 1988. Tate Collection, United Kingdom Francis Bacon

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  • Triptych, 1983. Collection of Juan Abelló, Madrid Francis Bacon

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Bacon’s triptychs are his most iconic works, and are a format he returned to repeatedly. Between 1962 and 1991 he painted 28 triptychs in this 78 by 56-inch size, but throughout his career he executed numerous triptychs on smaller scales, fascinated by the power and compositional balance that this format afforded him. Deeply aware of the significance of the number three in Christian liturgy as reflective of the tripartite nature of God – Father, Son, and Holy Ghost – this choice of format reflected Bacon’s wider employment of Christian drama, as well as, in the case of the present work, Greek mythology, as armature on which to hang his experience of the world. Bacon clung to Western literary masterpieces in order to communicate fundamental human concerns and, in doing so, positioned himself as the descendant of a storied lineage of artistic genius.

The present work finds its form in the tragedy of the Oresteia—the only extant ancient Greek trilogy—written by Aeschylus in the 5th century BC. It is a play that revolves around themes of guilt and vengeance. Before the action begins, the audience is aware that before he set sail for the Trojan War, Agamemnon, the king of Argos, sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to appease the goddess Artemis, who was blocking his fleet’s progress. The first play commences upon Agamemnon’s return to Argos, and the drama revolves around his wife Clytemnestra, and her ultimately successful plot to murder the king and avenge her daughter’s death. The second play follows Agamemnon and Clytemnestra’s son Orestes, who avenges his father’s death by committing matricide, and the third and final play sees Orestes pursued by the Furies, Ancient Greek deities of vengeance. Harpy-like, they torment him until he appeals to Athena, who arranges a trial of Orestes by his peers, the first courtroom trial.

(LEFT) Willem de Kooning, Orestes, 1947
Private Collection
Art © 2020 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
(RIGHT) William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Orestes Pursued by the Furies, 1862
Chrysler Museum of Art, Virginia

Although the painting avoids narrative legibility, certain symbols and figures present in the triptych relate directly to the Greek tragedy. In traditional stagings of the play, when Agamemnon returns from Troy, Clytemnestra lays down red robes for him to walk upon, foreshadowing her betrayal; here, the dais upon which the decapitated figure stands is colored blood red. In the left panel, the ominous trail of blood spilling from under the door, thick wound of red and purple paint dashed across the body, and monstrous form of the being that hangs in mid-air ally the figure depicted there with the Furies. Similarly, on the right of the three panels, which in itself is significant as there were traditionally three Furies, the upper half of the figure, who appears to be walking into the void of darkness beyond the door, is distorted beyond recognition, and mirrors the figure on the other side. However, beyond these seemingly literal translations of the Oresteia, the resonance of this painting lies in Bacon’s own Furies, which haunted him throughout his life. The guilt that tormented him after the suicide of his longtime partner George Dyer (captured most explicitly his 'black' triptychs, which he painted immediately following Dyer’s death), the death of his former lover Peter Lacy, and the friction of familial strife that plagued his childhood all cast a pall over his work; of these, the abuse and rejection he endured at the hands of his father cast an especially dark and lasting shadow over his psyche and artistic output. Michael Peppiatt explains the root of the artist’s particular focus on Aeschylus’s Oresteia trilogy: “his interest in Aeschylus was first sparked by seeing a performance of T.S. Eliot’s The Family Reunion, itself inspired by the Oresteia trilogy...Bacon’s real relationship with Aeschylus came at one further remove, through yet another source: an essay by the classical scholar William Bedell Stanford called ‘Aeschylus in his Style,’ whose translations of certain fragments—certain images—of the Oresteia were to reverberate in Bacon’s visual imagination for the rest of his life...the synaesthetic imagery of the Oresteia was deeply fascinating and satisfying.” (Michael Peppiatt, Francis Bacon, Studies for a Portrait: Essays and Interviews, New Haven and London 2008, p. 112) Through the filter of a classical text, Bacon allows viewers to glean insight into his psychological afflictions.

Cimabue, Crucifix, 1267-71
Basilica of San Domenico, Arezzo, Italy
Image © Scala / Art Resource, NY

Despite his staunch Atheism, Bacon nonetheless relied upon Christian liturgy “to convey his sense of the inevitable, preordained doom of human existence.” (Exh. Cat., New Haven, The Yale Center for British Art, Francis Bacon: A Retrospective Exhibition, 1999, p. 178) Not only does the present work’s triptych form mirror the tripartite structure of the Oresteia, but it also conjures a specific art historical reference: the Christian altarpiece. Atop a cross-shaped pedestal sits a disfigured man; two imperceptible but wholly present figures, one of which is winged, flank him—calling to mind art historical references to the Holy Trinity. The blood-red pigment which seeps into the fore from the black void in the left panel, and which unfurls beneath the cross in the central panel, imbues the composition with a specifically Christian resonance. Through these liturgical allusions, Bacon entrenches himself into a storied canon, which includes the likes of Giovanni Cimabue, Matthias Grünewald, and Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.

(LEFT) Alberto Giacometti, The Cage (First Version), 1949-1950
Private Collection
Art © 2020 Alberto Giacometti Estate / VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY / ADAGP, Paris
(RIGHT) Pablo Picasso, Nude Standing By the Sea, 1939
Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource, NY
Art © 2020 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Visceral yet refined, gruesome but abstracted, Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus embodies Bacon’s thesis on realism, which he articulated in a letter to Michel Leiris in 1981. Describing the present work, Bacon writes: “As for my latest triptych and a few other canvases painted after I re-read Aeschylus, I tried to create images of the sensations that some of the episodes created inside me. I could not paint Agamemnon, Clytemnestra or Cassandra, as that would have been merely another kind of historical painting when all is said and done. Therefore, I tried to create an image of the effect that was produced inside me.” (the artist cited in: “Homage to Bacon,” Tate Etc. 14, Autumn 2008, online, n.p.) To image such an effect, Bacon confines his external figures within cage-like structures—a motif which recurs throughout his oeuvre. Claustrophobic and exposed, Bacon’s figures writhe within their entrapment—wincing at viewers’ voyeurism—akin to the tortured figures in Alberto Giacometti’s cages. Martin Harrison describes the figures’ anguish by writing: “From an orifice in the Eumenides in the left-hand panel, enigmatically suspended as though in its death throes, blood spurts forth in a dramatic, lyrical but unsettling gesture, in densely impastoed orgasmic paint.” (Martin Harrison, In Camera: Francis Bacon, Photography, Film and the Practice of Painting, New York 2005, p. 200) Stationed in front of doorways to nowhere, the figures tremble in anticipation of their fate.

By encasing the present work behind glass, Bacon reflects viewers’ image back to them—irrefutably making them aware of their voyeuristic act. His glazing and his framing, signature characteristics of his paintings, provide a unifying solemnity and a haunting aura to the present work; its self-reflexivity reproduces a sense of the Existentialist dread that dominated intellectual thought in the Twentieth Century. Art historian Sam Hunter argues that Bacon’s glass, coupled with his caged imagery, carries a specific historical resonance: “His howling prelates and intertwined sadomasochistic couples, set within veiled dream spaces and defined by transparent perspective boxes or a proscenium space, seemed to have anticipated the obscene image of Adolf Eichmann, who was protected from the rage of his victims by a bulletproof glass box during his trial for war crimes.” (Exh. Cat., New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Francis Bacon: An Exhibition, 1989, p. 30) Brimming with contemporary historical significance, and matched with the medium’s inherent dramaturgical properties, Bacon’s glass takes all who come before it as prisoner.

Salvador Dalí, The Great Masturbator, 1929
Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, Spain
Image © Alinari / Art Resource, NY

Laden with a disquieting malaise, the biomorphic yet disfigured forms in Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus adapt the essence of Surrealism, epitomizing Bacon’s distinctive mode of figuration. An erotic undercurrent laces the violence of the present work, calling to mind masterpieces such as Visage du Grand Masturbateur by Salvador Dalí; here, in the central panel, the figure’s head is “swept downwards on an extended neck and placed in what is now clearly a genital position, teeth glowing in hollowed flesh set in a dark circle, a dab of cloudy white paint dribbling from between them.” (Exh. Cat., London, Tate Gallery, Francis Bacon, 1985, p. 17) Swollen and oblong, the molten forms—punctured by biting skeletal bones—demonstrate the perennial influence of Picasso’s biomorphism on Bacon’s practice. Set as the painting’s focal point, the jagged teeth of the central figure, staged for view on a dish made for consumption, draw viewers directly to the mouth of the beast. Long fascinated by the mouth as an expressive feature, Bacon relentlessly attunes viewers’ attention to its screams. Dawn Ades expands on the mouth as a fascination for the artist, writing: “the mouth itself can also be metaphor for a wound. A line from the Oresteia which has haunted Bacon for some time is that spoken by the leader of the Furies, or the Eumenides, as they track Orestes to Athena’s sanctuary: ‘the reek of human blood smiles out at me.’” (Ibid.) A synecdoche for human suffering, the anguished mouth of the present work sneers at viewers, deriving masochistic delight from its self-pleasure.

Chaïm Soutine, Flayed Rabbit, 1921
Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia
Art © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Consumed by the carnal physicality of flesh, Bacon kept medical journals in his studio as reference and stimulus, ever focused on the animalistic struggle of mankind. Blood-drenched and deeply saturated, the present work demonstrates Bacon’s attraction “to the aesthetic qualities of blood and the vividness of the colours of raw meat or flesh.” (Exh. Cat., London, Tate Britain, Francis Bacon, 2008, p. 234) As if precisely expounding on the present work—with its cement-like foreground, made bloody by the wounds of its tortured figures—Bacon notes: “If you see somebody lying on the pavement in the sunlight, with the blood streaming from him, that is in itself—the colour of the blood against the pavement—very invigorating...exhilarating.” (the artist cited in: Ibid.) To further capture the feral instincts of man, Bacon voraciously studied the photography of Eadweard Muybridge; the present work’s left-most figure adapts Muybridge’s images of pelicans in flight. Muscular yet nondescript, the figures of Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus evoke the fundamental beastliness of man.

(LEFT) Mounted leaf with four black-and-white illustrations of a diving brown pelican
Image © Collection of Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane
Art © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. / DACS, London / ARS, NY 2020
(RIGHT) Fragment illustrating Eadward Muybridge’s studies of Animal Locomotion
Image © Collection of Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane
Art © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. / DACS, London / ARS, NY 2020

Unparalleled in its potency, Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus stands as testament to the enduring appeal of Bacon’s work: its limitless capacity to provoke the most fundamental of human emotions, despite its grounding in the specifics of Bacon’s life story. More refined in pictorial language than in his earlier triptychs, the starkness of the present work’s composition—in tandem with its near perfect symmetry of design—instills a sense of awe and heightens its command. Matching the bravura of the progenitor of tragedy, Bacon grapples, in the present work, with the human impulses and philosophical concerns which consumed Aeschylus thousands of years ago, ultimately creating a timeless, epic drama of the Modern Age.

The artist in his studio in London, 1980
Photo by Edward Quinn