Francis Bacon was born October 28, 1909 in Dublin, Ireland, the second of five children to parents of British descent. During the First World War the family moved to London, Where Bacon’s father, Anothony Edward ‘Eddy’ Mortimer Bacon, served in the War office. After the war the family returned to Ireland, moving between various country houses in County Laois and County Kildare and sometimes returning to England. Bacon attended the Dean Close School, Cheltenham, from the autumn of 1924 to the spring of 1926. This would be his only formal schooling as a child.
In 1926 Bacon went to London and survived by a modest allowance from his mother (£3-a-week). Later travelling to Berlin, Bacon was overwhelmed with the cultural experience. This life of the city was uninhibited and thrived artistically with new developments in architecture, painting and cinema. Following Berlin, Bacon moved to Paris in the summer of 1927 where he began to explore the art world by visiting galleries such as Galerie Paul Rosenbert. After seeing the exhibition of Picasso drawings, Bacon seemed to consider the idea of becoming an artist. Moving to Montparnasse, Bacon had the opportunity to see exhibitions by Picabia, de Chirico and Soutine.
In 1929 Bacon returned to London, where he became an interior designer and furniture designer. In 1933 Bacon exhibited as part of a group show at the Mayor Gallery exhibiting his first truly original work, Crucifixion. The work was reproduced in Herbert Read’s book Art Now and purchased by collector, Sir Michael Sadler. Despite this promising start, Bacon’s career began to slow after his one-man show of paintings, gouaches, and drawings at Transition Gallery in 1934. The show did not sell well and received negative attention from the press. Many of the works from this period in Bacon’s life were destroyed, a kind of brutal self-editing the artist continued throughout his life.
Between 1939 and 1944 Bacon worked sporadically, volunteering for the Civil Defense Air Raid Precautions unit as an alternative to active service in the Second World War. His exemption from the war was caused by asthma, which worsened as a result of his Civil Defense service and prompted him to rent a cottage in Hampshire. The extremity of his wartime experiences is palpable in his work of this time, characterized by concentrated and visceral imagery.
Bacon returned to London in 1943, where he completed Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, a painting that would launch his reputation as an artist. It was exhibited at the Lefevre Gallery, New Bond Street in 1945, right before the end of the war in Europe. 1945’s Figure in a Landscape was also included, but it was Three Studies for Figures that truly impressed the public. Eric Hall purchased the work, ultimately presenting it to the Tate Gallery.
Bacon’s next major work, Painting, 1946 came just a year later. Graham Sutherland connected Bacon with Erica Brausen, who represented Bacon for twelve years. Despite this representation, Bacon did not mount a one-man show with Brausen’s Hanover Gallery until 1949. Between 1946 and 1949 he spent most of his time on the Cote d’Azur, gambling recklessly albeit often successfully. On his return to London (shortly before his show) he was forced to quickly build up a significant body of work. The pressure of time and quantity resulted in simple; one figure works with focused expressions and haunting details. One painting, Head VI, stood apart from the rest of the 1949 show. A variation on Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X of 1650, it was the beginning of Bacon’s exploration into interpretations of Velazquez. Bacon’s subsequent works were also characterized by their medium: no longer painted on headboard, these were instead painted on the raw, unprimed side of canvas, resulting in varied color saturation and rougher texture. Perhaps this was the result of the expiration of resources at the end of his time in Monte Carlo, but the artistic effects were remarkable. The intractability of the unprimed surface challenged Bacon in a new way, and he continued to work on the reverse of his canvases despite the “normal” side’s primed surface.
Bacon returned to the Velazquez theme in 1953, creating Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953 as well as Study for Portrait I-VIII. Other work of this time addresses the South African landscape, which Bacon admired while visiting his mother. His foreign exposure continued as he moved to Tangier in the mid-1950s, following his lover Peter Lacy. Splitting his time between London and Morocco, his international appeal widened, and he was invited to exhibit in the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. He had his first solo show in New York at Durlacher Brothers in 1953, and his first in Paris, at the Galerie Rive Droite, in 1957. It was in 1957 that Bacon moved decisively in a new direction, toward a coarser handling of paint and a thick impasto.
In May of 1962 Bacon was awarded a major retrospective at the Tate Gallery, establishing him as a preeminent contemporary British painter. Included in the retrospective was Three Studies for a Crucifixion of the same year, Bacon’s first large-scale triptych. The large-format triptych proved the ideal medium for addressing his most ambitious subjects. Unfortunately, the day of celebration was also marked by mourning as Peter Lacy died in Tangiers.
George Dyer became the next man in Bacon’s life. He became a recurrent subject of Bacon’s paintings in the 1960s, during which time Bacon also became fascinated with photography. As a result, he could expand his repertory while remaining engaged with his original source of inspiration, admiring both its content as well as the physical state of the photo itself. 1968 marked Bacon’s first visit to New York, where he was represented by Marlborough Gallery. His more recent paintings, on show at Marlborough, opened to mixed criticism, but nonetheless sold out completely within a week. His next show, at the Grand Palais in Paris, was marked with tragedy similar to his Tate retrospective, as Henry Dyer was found dead in a hotel room two days before opening night.
Bacon’s show at the Grand Palais kept him in Paris, where he spent a considerable amount of time through the 1970s. His outlook on his work and life was recorded by David Sylvester, who interviewed the artist between 1962 and 1974, publishing the interviews in book form in 1975. These interviews gave Bacon a chance to influence the reception and discussion of his works, and typescripts found retrospectively illuminate Bacon’s hand in the process. In 1975, after the book’s first publication, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York mounted an exhibition highlighting Bacon’s recent works.
As he entered his seventies, Bacon began to address the challenge of landscape, and his work continued to show all around the world. His exploration of landscape evolved into a paired-down pictorial language, focusing on cool tones and slight nuances. As his health declined due to a cancerous kidney, he continued travelling, falling critically ill in April.
Bacon’s works are exhibited in collections worldwide, including the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, the Tate Britain, London, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. His studio, where he worked for over thirty years, was donated to the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, Dublin, by John Edwards in 1998. It was reconstructed and opened to the public in May of 2001.
Francis Bacon died on April 28, 1992.