A Study In Friendship: When Francis Bacon Painted Lucian Freud

A Study In Friendship: When Francis Bacon Painted Lucian Freud

Francis Bacon’s Study for Portrait of Lucian Freud (1964) exemplifies an iconic pairing of two of the most significant painters within the canon of twentieth-century British art. It’s a dazzling example of Francis Bacon’s capacity to provoke emotion - and capture in paint, the complexities of the human psyche. But how did this remarkable piece of art come about – and how did the complex dynamic between the two very different men spark its creation?
Francis Bacon’s Study for Portrait of Lucian Freud (1964) exemplifies an iconic pairing of two of the most significant painters within the canon of twentieth-century British art. It’s a dazzling example of Francis Bacon’s capacity to provoke emotion - and capture in paint, the complexities of the human psyche. But how did this remarkable piece of art come about – and how did the complex dynamic between the two very different men spark its creation?
INSTALLATION VIEW OF THE PRESENT WORK AT FRANCIS BACON: PAINTINGS 1945-1964 AT MODERNA MUSEET, STOCKHOLM, FEBRUARY - APRIL 1965.


IMAGE: © ARTWORK: © THE ESTATE OF FRANCIS BACON. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. DACS 2022

F rancis Bacon and Lucian Freud first met in London, in 1944. Their friendship, which lasted almost exactly 40 years, was intense inspiring and eventful. During the 1950s and 1960s, at the height of their infamy, the pair ruled the city’s Bohemian enclave of Soho, holding court at the legendary Colony Rooms, the French pub and the Coach & Horses, gathering a carousing coterie of eccentrics, writers, poets, musicians and hangers-on in their wake, from journalists such as Dan Farson and Jeffrey Barnard and ubiquitous muse Henrietta Moraes, to fellow painters including Frank Auerbach, Michael Andrews and poet Stephen Spender. At the heart of the action, were Freud and Bacon, their spiky friendship fuelled by almost daily (and nightly) meetings, during which they gossiped, argued, drank, exchanged ideas, inspired, lectured, encouraged, critiqued and painted each other.

Lucian Freud photographed by Cecil Beaton (1956)

© The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby's

According to Farson, a friend to both, Freud and Bacon were virtually ‘inseparable’. Freud’s then-wife Lady Caroline Blackwood remembered having to have dinner with Bacon ‘nearly every day’ for the duration of her marriage from 1953 to 1959. Their closeness fuelled each other’s extraordinary talents, and it is this unique dynamic that infuses Study for Portrait of Lucian Freud. The work is taut with emotions; friendship, respect, rivalry and fervour, immortalising Bacon’s deep infatuation with his contemporary, as well showing off the very pinnacle of his inimitable painterly style.

Francis Bacon, 1975

Bacon and Freud were first introduced by English painter Graham Sutherland. As Freud later recalled, “I said rather tactlessly to Graham 'Who do you think is the best painter in England?’ [And] he said, ‘Oh, someone you've never heard of; he's like a cross between Vuillard and Picasso; he's never shown and he has the most extraordinary life; we sometimes go to dinner parties there”.

This was five years before eminent critic and painter Wyndham Lewis remarked in The Listener that Bacon was “one of the most powerful artists in Europe”, comparing him to Velázquez. “Not one of the contemporary young artists paints as grandiosely as Bacon. Some of his paintings remind me of Velázquez and, like the master, he prefers black”. Freud himself was immediately excited when he saw Bacon’s work and witnessed his singular painting technique.

‘He talked about packing a lot of things into a single brushstroke, which amused and excited me. I realised that it was a million miles away from anything I could ever do.’
- Lucian Freud on Francis Bacon

‘He talked about packing a lot of things into a single brushstroke, which amused and excited me,’ Freud said of Bacon. ‘I realised that it was a million miles away from anything I could ever do.’

Francis Bacon, Study for Portrait of Henrietta Moraes, (1964) Courtesy of Heidi Horten Collection, Photo: Courtesy Heidi Horten Collection

Freud and Bacon were both outsiders. Bacon, a gay man estranged from his strict Irish family, Freud, a child refugee whose parents had fled Nazi Germany. Their backgrounds forged deep tensions in each man’s art and cemented their bond.
In his memoir, Bacon’s friend and biographer Michael Peppiatt wrote of Freud’s closeness to Bacon: “I think he is in awe of Francis, or even in love with him. But then I suppose most of us are, whether its Lucian, or George, or me, Sonia Orwell or models like Henrietta Moraes, or Miss Beston, who looks after everything to do with Francis at the Marlborough gallery… He is the point, whether we know it or not, around which we all turn”.

LUCIAN FREUD, FRANCIS BACON, 1956-57
PRIVATE COLLECTION
IMAGE/ ARTWORK: © THE LUCIAN FREUD ARCHIVE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED 2022 / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES

Indeed, Bacon’s influence on Freud’s life and work was profound. As Freud recounted early in their friendship, “I realised immediately that [Bacon’s] work related to how he felt about life. Mine on the other hand seemed very laboured. That was because there was a terrific amount of labour for me to do anything – and still is. Francis on the other hand, would have ideas, which he put down and then destroy and then quickly put down again. It was his attitude that I admired. The way he was completely ruthless about his own work. I think that Francis’s way of painting freely helped me feel more daring”

Black and white photograph of George Dyer and Francis Bacon in Soho in the 1950s
Black and white photograph of George Dyer and Francis Bacon in Soho in the 1950s. Photo: John Deakin; Collection: Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. / DACS, London / ARS, NY 2019.

Study for Portrait of Lucian Freud dates from the most crucial period of Bacon’s career. His friendship with Freud was in full swing, he was gaining immense international recognition following a series of major museum exhibitions and his relationship with partner George Dyer was in full bloom. This sustained growth in artistic confidence throughout the 1960s is exemplified by the fact that some of his greatest self-portraits were executed during this time. Freud made several drawings of Bacon - in 1952, he painted an observant portrait of his friend; a second one started in 1956 was left unfinished. Conversely, Bacon painted many portraits of Freud, executing the first in 1951 and thereafter, producing no less than 16 works of his friend.

LUCIAN FREUD, LUCIAN FREUD WITH FRANCIS BACON’S TWO FIGURES, 1953


IMAGE: © DAVID DAWSON. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED 2022 / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES

During the same time, Freud was evolving from being a shrewd observer of bleak cityscapes and self-portraits to darker, more textured portraits and nude studies. Like Bacon, he tended to channel emotional depths through the prism of the human figure, revelling in the rich potential found in sinews, flesh, faces and bone. Each man had his own method of plumbing the physical form – Bacon would work from ideas gleaned from photographs, while Freud would paint at majestically glacial pace. [When he painted the Queen in 2001, the monarch remarked on how slowly Freud painted. “This is me moving like a rocket, ma’am” he tartly replied].

LUCIAN FREUD, FRANCIS BACON, 1952


IMAGE: © TATE ARTWORK: © THE ESTATE OF FRANCIS BACON. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, DACS/ARTIMAGE 2022

Bacon’s paintings of Freud from the 1960s were, in the words of Freud biographer William Feaver, “all closely informed by [the pair’s friend John] Deakin’s photographs of him, [which] were systematically dramatised in the making. Bacon amplified the feel of shapes, exaggerating how it feels to sit, to slump, or to fidget to avoid a crick in the neck and cramp behind the knee. He loved a good whiplash assertion of fellow feeling. This often involved interchanged body parts”.

Francis Bacon Study for Portrait of Lucian Freud (1964)

Bacon’s frenetic emerald-green, pink and white brushwork in Freud’s face exemplifies this sense of dynamic, visceral movement – or whiplash – as his head appears to swivel quickly to the side, his body bent forward in tense aggression.
The threatening pose of the sitter with his fists clenched is unique and rare among the large-scale portraits of Freud painted during this period. In the triptychs Three Studies of Lucian Freud (1969) and Three Studies for Portrait of Lucian Freud (1966) Freud is seen equally restless and agitated, yet his positions are seemingly insecure and protected – legs crossed, arms folded, his body always angled slightly away from the viewer. In contrast, this work illuminates Freud at his most confident, his chest bare and body open facing directly towards the viewer. Bacon’s thick brushwork shows Freud’s face spectacularly distorted, yet his eyes regard the viewer directly in a visceral glare, addressing the audience directly. The exceptional impact is characteristic of Bacon’s love of dramatic, confrontational dynamics. It also a telling expression of Bacon’s own complex feelings about his friend.

Lucian Freud by John Deakin (1964)

Speaking many years later, about the artists' feud which took hold in the mid 1980s, for reasons still laregly unclear that ruptured a forty-year bond, Bella Freud - daughter of Lucian - recalled: “Francis was clearly somebody who my father adored and admired. And there weren’t many people my father talked about in that way. The things he repeated about him were just dazzling, utterly disarming and breathtakingly wonderful, and silencing because of their brilliance. I imagine he must have missed that when he stopped being friendly with him.”

Study for Portrait of Lucian Freud exemplifies an iconic pairing of two of the most significant painters within the canon of twentieth-century art. A testament to Francis Bacon’s capacity to provoke emotion and capture in paint the complexities of the human psyche - and Lucian Freud’s immense stature and tightly-coiled power - it represents no less than a meeting of minds, illuminating a powerful dialogue rarely matched in history.

More from Sotheby's

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

Close
arrow Created with Sketch. Back To Top