Contemporary Art

Francis Bacon's Spellbinding Masterpiece, 'Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus'

New York
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Sotheby’s is honored to announce that Francis Bacon’s large-format 'Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus' will highlight our Contemporary Art Evening Auction in New York on 29 June 2020, when it will be offered with an estimate in excess of $60 million.

I nspired by Aeschylus’s trilogy of Greek tragedies dating to the 5th century B.C., the present triptych stands as one of the most ambitious, enigmatic and important works of Bacon’s oeuvre, and a landmark of 20th century art. In this work from 1981, Bacon revisits the same classical text that inspired Three Studies for Figures at the Base of the Crucifixion, which announced his debut on the world stage in 1944 – and now resides in the Tate Collection, London. A parallel to that early triumph, Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus reveals in a single work the entire range of Bacon’s iconography, developed over three decades of painting.

Francis Bacon, Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus, 1981. Estimate $60,000,000 – 80,000,000.

“I’ll tell you what I really read: things which bring up images for me. And I find that this happens very much with the translations of Aeschylus… they open up the valves of sensation for me.”
Francis Bacon

Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus is one of 28 large-format triptychs (78 inches / 198 cm tall) that Bacon created between 1962 and 1991. The present example represents only the 6th large-format triptych ever to appear at auction, and the first to be offered since 2014. Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus was most recently on view in the Centre Pompidou’s celebrated exhibition Bacon: Books and Painting.

Alex Branczik, Head of Contemporary Art for Sotheby’s Europe, commented:

“Francis Bacon is the great tragedian of his age. In this ambitious triptych, the painter confronts Aeschylus, the progenitor of tragedy, so that the timeless power of the Ancient Greek genre is brought to bear on the human condition in the 20th century. The result is an arresting and original vision, a true masterpiece that confirms Bacon’s standing in the pantheon of modern masters.”
Alex Branczik, Head of Contemporary Art for Sotheby’s Europe

The present work comes to Sotheby's having been in the care of the Astrup Fearnley Museet in Oslo, Norway, a celebrated and pioneering private museum of Contemporary art founded by Norwegian collector Hans Rasmus Astrup. Proceeds from the sale of Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus will strengthen the museum's Foundation and underlying entities to ensure long-term support of the Astrup Fearnley Museet, and in particular to expand and diversify the Astrup Fearnley Collection housed therein.

“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… an image of the effect that was produced inside me.”
Francis Bacon

Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus provokes a range of interpretations, matching the tragic grandeur of the Greek playwright Aeschylus in a 20th century setting. Bacon’s theme of divine punishment is found in Aeschylus’s most famous trilogy, The Oresteia, in which Clytemnestra murders her husband Agamemnon in revenge for the sacrifice of their daughter, Iphigenia. When the son Orestes finds out, he kills his mother to avenge his father’s death, provoking the avenging Furies, also called the Eumenides, who determine to drive Orestes insane as punishment.

The Illustrious Exhibition History

  • 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

Bacon used literary references to jolt his own imagination, having no interest in the lofty goals of narrative history painting. The goal of Greek tragedy was to incite catharsis in the viewer – in appropriating its iconography, Bacon exorcised something in himself. The enduring appeal of his work is its power to endlessly provoke the most fundamental of human emotions. Although Bacon frequently cited Aeschylus as an inspiration, this was the only instance where the Greek dramatist was referred to in the title of a painting.

Matching the epic grandeur of the progenitor of tragedy, Bacon recorded something primal about the 20th century in Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus. In doing so, he created a masterpiece of the modern age.

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