Francis Bacon, Enigmatic Painter of Howling Popes, Lived a Life on the Edge

Alexxa Gotthardt
Nov 23, 2016 7:01PM
Beetles + Huxley

From a small London studio littered ankle-deep with source material, bottles of fine champagne, and a cacophony of paint splatters, Francis Bacon conjured some of the most innovative and, as art critic Robert Melville once put it, “satanically influential” paintings of the 20th century. His canvases writhe with fleshy, screaming, contorted figures, from popes and famed art-historical subjects to friends and ill-fated lovers. His searing work embodies a host of post-war cultural anxieties, as well as Bacon’s personal demons and obsessions.

But what was this mighty, enigmatic painter’s secret to creating such spellbinding imagery—and, all the while, upholding his status as king of the bon vivants? Below, we pull back the curtain on who Bacon was, what motivated his deeply affecting paintings, and why their sulfurous power won’t be fading anytime soon.

Who Was Francis Bacon?

Bacon was a complex man whose work was informed by a tangled web of intense relationships, art-historical fixations, and a fair number of vices. Born in Dublin in 1909 to a domineering father, Capt. Anthony Edward Mortimer, and his much younger wife, Christina Winifred Firth, Bacon was derided as a “weakling” and, as legend has it, horse-whipped by his father during his youth due to issues with chronic asthma. At 17, he was kicked out of the family home for good when he was discovered trying on his mother’s underwear.

Three Studies for Self-Portrait, 1976
Richard Gray Gallery

But despite (or perhaps because of) his asthmatic bouts and the abuse he endured, Bacon was strong-willed and resilient, with the constitution of a bull. He drank, ate, gambled, loved, and painted with such voraciousness that he rarely had time for sleep; two to three hours a night was typical. Through this haze of debauchery and hard living, and bolstered by deep friendships and aesthetic obsessions, Bacon produced a cascade of paintings that were not only disturbingly beautiful, but also boldly original. His shocking work galvanized the group of painters surrounding him in mid-century London (the “School of London”) and eventually influenced several generations of artists to come, including Damien Hirst, Jenny Saville, and Jake and Dinos Chapman, to name just a few.

What Inspired Him?

After Bacon was jettisoned from his family home, he embarked on a series of European escapades that opened his eyes to art and design, not to mention other earthly pleasures, like sex and wine. Several works he encountered during his travels made a lasting impact on his work and wouldn’t leave his mind until his death in 1992.

While studying French near Chantilly in 1927, he happened upon Poussin’s great Massacre of the Innocents (1628–29) and was struck by the emotional agony of the scene, embodied forcefully in the screaming maw of a mother whose child is about to be killed. Later that year, he picked up a book detailing diseases of the mouth, and not long after that, he watched Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film Battleship Potemkin, which features a scene of a howling, bloodied nurse—an image permanently tattooed on his mind. Around that time, on a trip to Paris, he was also introduced to Picasso’s early figurative drawings. All these run-ins provided Bacon with his initial art education (he was never formally trained) and went on to influence his unique approach to rendering the human body as a malleable—and, at times, grotesque—vessel of raw human feeling.

The wide-open mouth would later materialize in some of the painter’s greatest canvases: his series of wailing popes, which he toiled over from 1949 until 1971. They show blurred, bethroned men caught in the act of an intense and seemingly eternal scream that, as Bacon biographer Michael Peppiatt has said, might have referred simultaneously to the militaristic orders of Bacon’s father, the raging rows between Bacon and his tortured lover Peter Lacy, or more simply, to a cry of fear or the climax of a body-quaking orgasm. This was the rare power of Bacon’s work: fusing a range of references into a Frankenstein’s monster of a whole, a beast shuddering with frustration, tension, and countless other, subtler emotions.

Bacon’s “Popes” also reveal another influence: Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1650), a painting Bacon became so infatuated with that he admitted to having a “crush” on it. Time and time again, Bacon would rework his own version of the masterpiece, although, interestingly, he refused to see the painting in person when he finally made a trip to Rome. He was embarrassed, he told Peppiatt, of his many “stupid” manipulations of the piece.

Alongside the many other great artists (Giacomettivan Gogh, and Matisse among them) who influenced Bacon, the painter also looked for creative guidance in the work of writers and poets—namely Racine, Baudelaire, and Proust. He was attracted to their ability to pare down the complexities of human existence into succinct lines and phrases; he sought to do the same with the arresting figures rooted at the core of his canvases.

How Did He Work?

Reproductions of Bacon’s inspirations—like the Massacre of the Innocents, along with tattered photos of wild animals, Egyptian talismans, and more—ended up in a soupy jumble on the floors of the many studios he occupied over the course of his career. The exuberant mess was accented with paint and the occasional vestiges of parties he hosted after a long night of carousing through London’s drinking clubs and gambling houses. One of Bacon’s friends, the painter Graham Sutherland, once described Bacon’s early Cromwell Place studio as “a large chaotic place, where the salad bowl was likely to have paint on it and the painting to have salad dressing on it.”

But for all his decadence, Bacon was also extremely dedicated, with his own brand of regimentation. “You have to be disciplined in everything, even in frivolity,” he was known to have said. “Above all in frivolity.” Indeed, his passion for enthusiastic and prolonged socialization seemed to fuel his work. Without fail, after a late night of partying, he would wake up at 6 a.m. to paint for several hours in the morning light. Then he’d begin dining and boozing about town, liaising with his many friends and acquaintances, from fellow painters Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach to renowned London collectors, such as the Sainsbury’s, to one of his many lovers, like Lacy or Eric Hall. He even went so far as to say that he worked better after a night of drinking: “My mind simply crackles with electricity after one of those evenings,” he once boasted to his friends. “I think the drink actually makes me freer.”

There were some risks to this routine, however. On several occasions, he’d come home late at night, wildly drunk, and decide to “perfect” a painting he’d finished the day before, only to wake up the next morning and discover that he’d ruined it. After one of these episodes, his gallery began collecting his paintings from his studio the moment he finished them.

Bacon’s childhood nanny, Jessie Lightfoot, who lived with the painter until her death in 1951, and his two primary dealers—first Erica Brausen at Hanover Gallery, then Valerie Beston at Marlborough Gallery—also played major roles in helping organize his life and career. When Bacon was struggling financially during his youth, Lightfoot helped him find lovers who would also provide financial support. Brausen became a close friend and confidante; they bonded over their shared homosexuality and appetites for risk-taking (Bacon’s on the canvas; Brausen’s on the walls of her gallery). And starting in 1958, Miss Beston, as she was affectionately called, arranged almost all of Bacon’s day-to-day logistics during his most successful years. She paid his bills, arranged his calendar, made sure his apartment stayed clean, and kept him to his painting schedule. She also kept his canvases out of the trash bin, as he was known to destroy them.

Why Does His Work Matter?

Bacon brought new emotional intensity to the painted figure by representing his subjects—be they friends or mythological figures—as contorted, fleshy, emotionally open masses. He sought to reveal, in all its complexity, what was behind the human facade. “I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail leaving its trail of the human a snail leaves its slime,” he once said. Indeed, Bacon’s paintings pulsate with the dual energy of human suffering and ecstasy. They seem to unearth, in their blurred limbs and wide-open mouths, our most primal urges. (Scholars have noted that in his canvases from the 1950s, monkeys and men often closely resemble one another.)

Triptych - August 1972, 1989
Marlborough Gallery

In his life and work, Bacon embodied and fed off extremes. “The core of Bacon’s genius,” Peppiatt has said, “lay in his ability to straddle these extreme contradictions and translate (or sublimate) them into instantly recognizable images whose characteristic tension derives from a life lived on the edge.” As Bacon once put it: “You have to go too far to go far enough—only then can you hope to break the mould and make something new.”

Alexxa Gotthardt
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019