Sotheby's, London, 12 October 2007, Lot 31 (consigned by the above)
Private Collection, New York
Christie’s, London, 14 February 2012, Lot 33
Acquired from the above by the present owner
New York, Gagosian Gallery, Alberto Giacometti. Francis Bacon: Isabel and Other Intimate Strangers, November - December 2008, p. 43, illustrated in colour and p. 45, detail of the right panel illustrated in colour
Michael Peppiatt has described Rawsthorne's prodigious facility for physiognomic change: "Her face would assume a look of extreme indignation, followed by one of raucous good humour, and then a glance of seduction, all dropped like masks and as readily replaced" (Michael Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, London 1996, p. 205). Bacon was inevitably seduced by this expressive variety and this diptych epitomises a rare mode of description that can only stem from a lifetime's worth of close observation. In 1984 Bacon told David Sylvester "I am certainly not trying to make a portrait of somebody's soul or psyche or whatever you like to call it. You can only make a portrait of their appearance, but I think that their appearance is deeply linked with their behaviour" (Francis Bacon in conversation with David Sylvester, 1984, in: David Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon, London 2000, p. 234). Rawsthorne described Bacon's paintings of her as "fabulously accurate" and this deeply personal work is the consummate conflation of her worldly exterior appearance and phenomenal interior character (Isabel Rawsthorne, quoted in: Michael Peppiatt, op. cit., p. 208).
In this extraordinary portrait we see Bacon as “the Proustian recorder of time passing”; Studies of Isabel Rawsthorne is not only the valediction to a truly epic life that spanned the devastating excesses of the Twentieth Century, but also punctuates the closing chapter of her friendship with Bacon. As Martin Harrison further notes of this work, “The diptych of Isabel – he had not painted her since 1971, and this was to be his final painting of her – is redolent of the small panel paintings of fifteenth-century Northern Europe made for the private use of the laity, an intimate if, in Bacon’s version, entirely secularized devotional object. At the time, Isabel had just turned seventy. While profoundly yet unflinchingly conscious of the aging process, Bacon nonetheless opted to soften her strongly lined face. For some years, Isabel had been suffering from glaucoma; she had undergone an operation just before Bacon painted the diptych, and had lost sight in one eye. Astigmatic himself, Bacon must have feared blindness acutely and was doubtless deeply sympathetic to her plight. Thus, in an affectionate and overtly biographical gesture, Studies of Isabel Rawsthorne appears to be, especially in the smudged paint around the eye in the right panel, a touching and poignant document of his friend’s depleted condition” (Martin Harrison, ‘Francis Bacon: The Pulsations of a Person’, in: Exh. Cat., New York, Gagosian Gallery, Alberto Giacometti. Francis Bacon: Isabel and Other Intimate Strangers, 2008, p. 210).
In this painting each head looms like a sculpture in paint, cut-out and superimposed onto the phosphorescent flatness of a vibrant backdrop that emphasises each head’s geometric silhouette. Throughout the work there is this tension between graphic dexterity and the power of colour, as is so typical of Bacon's most enthralling works. Within the circumscribed outlines of the two heads, Rawsthorne's idiosyncratic features – high forehead, long cheek-bones, and arched eyebrows – are confidently scribed in flecked streaks and variegated smears of densely worked paint. Variance of expression is revealed through the veiled layers of shuttered, shocking-pink hatching, rooted in the virtuosity of Edgar Degas' pastel technique, so that "sensation doesn't come straight out at you; it slides slowly and gently through the gaps" (Francis Bacon in conversation with David Sylvester, 1984, op. cit.).
Emulating mug-shot proportions of a photo-booth portrait, the unadorned immediacy of Bacon’s small portraits radiate endurance, nervousness, and involuntary mannerisms: these heads truly embody Bacon’s desire to paint as close to the ‘nervous system’ as possible. To quote William Feaver: “‘Studies’ or exercises though they are, these small paintings are central to Bacon’s art. The scale of a bathroom mirror-image makes them one-to-one, and when they are paired, or grouped in threes, the differences animate them. No rooms, no thrones, no perfunctory landscape settings are needed. Without context or posture, the heads have nothing to do but look, sometimes at one another, and wait” (William Feaver, ‘That’s It’, in: Exh. Cat., London, Marlborough Fine Art, Ltd., Francis Bacon 1909 - 1992 Small Portrait Studies, 1993, p. 6). A series and format first settled upon in 1961 and maintained until the very end, these intimately scaled works form the very staple of Bacon’s mature practice, acting as the primary locus for the ‘brutality of fact’ and most immediate site for loosening the ‘valves of feeling’ so frequently referred to by the artist. Spectre-like and isolated within a chromatic ground of quintessential importance for Bacon – cadmium orange was significantly used as the base for the ground-breaking Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) – Studies of Isabel Rawsthorne utterly exudes the visceral and psychological charge of Bacon’s distorted yet searingly honest vision of humanity.