The Many Heads of Francis Bacon

The Many Heads of Francis Bacon

One of Francis Bacon's most iconic works, Head, features in Sotheby's upcoming Art Contemporain Evening Sale.
One of Francis Bacon's most iconic works, Head, features in Sotheby's upcoming Art Contemporain Evening Sale.

O ver the course of 1948 and 1949, Francis Bacon intensively studied a series of Heads, placing this particular work from 1949 amongst the most important and rare bodies of work by the artist.
This series laid the foundation for many of his explorations of portraiture during the decades ahead. Identical in size and with its similar balanced palette of cool greys and cold whites, the present lot is most closely related to Head III, 1949 sold at auction for £10,442,500 in 2013 and current world record holder for a work by Bacon from the 1940s.

The second half of this decade manifests an important shift in the international recognition of the artist's talent with the start of a successful collaboration with Erica Brausen, owner of the Hanover Gallery. The London gallerist donated a work from the artist to Alfred Barr for the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1948, effectively kicking off in his global career. His very first solo exhibition opened at the Hanover Gallery only a year later, in November 1949, featuring an important group of six Heads. After having seen these works, the proclaimed art critic and British painter Wyndham Lewis's remarks in The Demon of Progress in the Arts testify to his enthusiasm about Bacon: "he is one of the most powerful artists in Europe" and makes the striking comparison with the Spanish master 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". (Wyndham Lewis in The Listener, 17 November 1949, p. 860).


Indeed, the mysterious composition and faded face of the personage in Head highlights his revolutionary post-war vision and may echo the influence of Old Masters' portraiture, such as Velázquez, Rembrandt or Michelangelo. On this matter Bacon affirms "I'm trying to do things that are very "particularized", such as portraits. And there are portraits of people, but, when you come to analyze them, you won't know them at all, or it'll be very difficult to see, how the image was made. [...] The other day, for example, I painted someone's head. And the eyes, the nose and the mouth were, if you analyze them, just forms that had nothing to do with eyes, noses or mouth." (Francis Bacon in L'art de l'impossible, tome 1, p.33-34).

As Michael Peppiatt notes, Head also reflects Bacon's "fascination for pleated drapes (an interest dating back to his early career as a designer/decorator)" and "the 'shuttering' effect that transparent drapes created", taking "on Titian's famous portrait of Cardinal Filippo Archinto" and "experimenting with the ways a diaphanous 'veil' of this kind could both distort and intensify the features of a sitter by half-obscuring them."

Along with the handful of other paintings that survived the brutality of Bacon's hand in the early 1940s, the exceptionally rare surviving paintings from the Head series amount to a total of only 9 canvasses, giving us a privileged and fresh insight into the evolution of his radical genius. Head being a superior and historical example of his practice, it characterizes Bacon's artistic strength and focus, inhabiting the space between bitter post-war reality and somber imagination.

Contemporary Art

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