Francis Bacon, STUDY FOR PORTRAIT, 1981. Estimate $12,000,000–18,000,000.
Contemporary Art

The Singular Muse of Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon's Study for Portrait, 1981, from The Gerald L. Lennard Foundation Collection, is a highlight of the upcoming Contemporary Art Evening Auction (16 May 2019, New York).

A ppearing in over forty paintings, a single figure stands out among the artist's multitude of portraits – his lover and muse, George Dyer. Perceivable in the painting Study for Portrait, 1981, Dyer inhabits a position of tremendous importance – commanding an exceptional presence within Bacon’s visual realm.

Francis Bacon, STUDY FOR PORTRAIT, 1981. Estimate $12,000,000–18,000,000.
Francis Bacon, STUDY FOR PORTRAIT, 1981. Estimate $12,000,000–18,000,000.

Monumental in its scale, and both seductive as well as somber, Study for Portrait reveals the force of Bacon’s painterly authority with an arresting intensity. His portrayal of George Dyer manifests a full range of thrilling emotions; the figure is simultaneously vulnerable, romantic, and tortured. The final painting of Dyer that Bacon ever executed – Study for Portrait presents a level of gravitas unparalleled in the artist’s other portraits.

Black and white photograph (torn fragment) of George Dyer in Francis Bacon’s Reece Mews studio
Black and white photograph (torn fragment) of George Dyer in Francis Bacon’s Reece Mews studio photographed by John Deakin c. 1965. Photo: John Deakin; Collection: Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. / DACS, London / ARS, NY 2019.

The story of Bacon’s first meeting with Dyer has achieved the status of a legend. Dyer, aged twenty-nine, attempted to burgle Bacon’s famed studio at 7 Reece Mews in London. Through the studio’s skylight, Dyer tumbled into Bacon’s private sphere, falling from above, at once altering the course of the artist’s life.

Francis Bacon’s studio, featuring a photograph of George Dyer
Francis Bacon’s studio, featuring a photograph of George Dyer. Photograph by Perry Ogden. Collection Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane Art © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. / DACS, London / ARS, NY 2019 .

By the end of the 1960s, the couple’s tumultuous relationship began to rupture – Dyer’s already waning confidence was overcast by the waxing shadow of Bacon’s success. Indeed, Bacon had ascended to the peak of his career at the beginning of the 1970s – at the time, the reputable Grand Palais in Paris was set to open an expansive solo exhibition to honor the artist. Bacon had inadvertently fueled Dyer’s paranoia of inadequacy and on the eve of his partner’s exhibition opening in Paris – Dyer died from an overdose.

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.

The swipes, smears, and smudges against Dyer’s visage are not marks of brutality, but rather the reflection of an artist exploring the variation of his color palette. Study for Portrait is among the most drastically reworked paintings that Bacon ultimately kept, rather than destroyed. A relentless self-editor, Bacon not only demolished a myriad of his paintings – he also continuously reworked his ‘completed’ pieces. In Study for Portrait, Bacon added a slanted, light blue rectangle toward the lower right corner of the composition – appearing to be a refracted ray light.

According to expert Martin Harrison:

“The pale blue ‘folded rhomboid’ is another of Bacon’s atavistic self-quotations...it is employed not so much as an element of Bacon’s presentational dynamics but to create a chasm (in time as well as space) across which Dyer’s image is cast.”
Martin Harrison, ed., Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné, Volume IV, 1971-92, London, 2016, p. 246.
Black and white photograph of George Dyer
Black and white photograph of George Dyer. Photo: John Deakin; Collection: Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. / DACS, London / ARS, NY 2019.

Fascinatingly, Harrison additionally argues, that the reconfiguration of this canvas was perhaps related to the tenth anniversary of Dyer’s passing. The degree to which Bacon was consumed by grief, loss, and guilt would find equal measure only in the pervasive, posthumous paintings of Dyer – with as many created following his death as executed during his lifetime. Study for Portrait emerges as a touchstone work, Bacon’s final painting of Dyer as well as his farewell to a devastating romance.

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