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Disturbing, tumultuous and largely autobiographical, Francis Bacon’s paintings are some of the most famous in the British Contemporary canon. Known for his tumultuous relationships and personal life, as well as for his famous sitters and circle of friends, Bacon painted the dark, tormented realities of human emotion. His unmistakable style saw him become one of the most renowned figures in British painting.


Born in 1909 in Dublin to English parents, Bacon was raised in both Ireland and England. The artist was prevented from receiving a formal education due to his chronic asthma and was instead tutored at home, before leaving for Germany at the age of just 17. It was in Berlin, and then Paris, that Bacon developed an interest in art through his visits to galleries.

On his return to London in the late 1920s, the artist embarked on a career as an interior decorator, largely inspired by Art Deco. Bacon from this point began to paint and his self-taught work started to gain recognition in the early 1930s.

First Paintings

Bacon was a ferocious self-critic and destroyed all works from his first solo exhibition, which was held in a friend’s basement, after receiving largely negative feedback. It was not until 1933 that Bacon achieved wider public recognition with his work Crucifixion (1933), a dark and sombre painting depicting a ghostly figure with its arms raised, loosely inspired by Picasso’s 1925 painting, The Three Dancers.


From the mid 1940s Bacon’s work was met with real critical success. His 1944 triptych Three Studies For Figures At The Base Of A Crucifixion depicts biomorphic figures inspired by Christian imagery and represents the three Furies. This work caused a sensation when it was first exhibited. Now held in the Tate Britain, this triptych, with its rich orange backdrop and contorted, anguished forms, resonated significantly with a public coming to terms with the horrors of the Second World War.

Important stylistically, this work also marked the beginning of Bacon’s enduring use of the triptych format, the combined use of pastel and oil paints, and the iconography of the distorted human figure.

Most Famous Works

Bacon’s Three Studies remains one of his most recognised works, however his 1953 painting, Study After Velazquez’s Portrait Of Pope Innocent X, has also endured as one of his most famous. One of the first in Bacon’s series of some 50 studies across the next 30 years responding to Velazquez’s work, it is considered a fine example of the artist’s ability to reinterpret the classical western canon with a renewed intensity, darkness and modern drama.


Bacon saw his painting style in terms of ‘series’ across his life - where his paintings would focus on a particular subject matter for an extended period. He was fascinated by the work of Goya, by Egyptian artwork, as well as by the Surrealists and Old Masters. This is evident in his consistent depictions of Popes and Catholic themes, through the distortion of the human figure and through the references to Greek Mythology across his career.

Often working from memory or his own imagination, there is a clear morphing of influences on Bacon’s work. This unusual combination of imagery is the result of his exposure to canonical artists such as Velazquez, Poussin, Picasso and Rembrandt alongside his exploration of medical textbooks and photographic stills, namely those from Einsteins’ 1925 silent film, 'Battleship Potemkin', which the artist returned to for inspiration throughout his career after first watching it in 1935.

Style & Technique

Bacon’s ability to use figuration to depict the harsher, darker, more tumultuous spectrum of human emotion continues to set his work apart. Turning away from the dominant artistic pursuit of abstraction, and having been rejected by the Surrealists, Bacon’s paintings propose a raw, existentialist style. His work focuses on anthropomorphic figures and the expression of familiar motifs repurposed in disturbing ways. In the artist’s own words, Bacon strove to render 'the brutality of fact.'

Bacon’s painterly style marked a distinctive separation from Abstract Expressionism that was pervasive across the art world of the mid-late twentieth century. The artist used striking planes of colour as backdrops and through unpleasant combinations of purples and yellows he consistently alluded to bodily fluids.

Life & Times

Bacon’s homosexuality was not looked on favourably by his family when he was younger man, and in 1926 he was expelled by his father from the family home after being discovered trying on his mother’s clothes. Sent away to Berlin for the next two years, Bacon’s relationships with men throughout this period were characterised by abuse, alcoholism and violence, potentially reflected in the visceral qualities of the figures in Bacon’s work. Nevertheless, Bacon enjoyed the financial advantages of his older lovers and before moving back to London, experienced the cultural and erotic landscape of Berlin and bohemian Paris.

Bacon’s most infamous relationship came later in his life in 1963, when he met East End petty criminal George Dyer. Urban mythology purports that the pair met while Dyer was breaking into Bacon’s flat in South Kensington, however in actuality they met in a Soho pub. The pair shared an intense, codependent relationship for nearly seven years, with Dyer quickly becoming Bacon’s muse. However, Dyer’s severe alcoholism and mental health issues led to his committing suicide in the pair’s shared hotel room, on the eve of Bacon’s retrospective exhibition in the Grand Palais in 1971.

Devastated and deeply affected by his loss, Bacon created his Black Triptychs (1972-74) as a form of emotional catharsis, works that study Dyer’s tortured final moments in the hotel bathroom.

Bacon himself died in 1992, the result of his chronic asthma, respiratory problems and eventually a heart attack on the 28th April that year. The contents of Bacon’s final studio at 7 Reece Mews was obtained by and moved to Dublin’s Hugh Lane Gallery in 1998.

On The Market

Exceeding its pre-sales prediction of $60 - $80 million, Bacon’s Triptych Inspired By Oresteia Of Aeschylus, (1981) sold for over $84 million at Sotheby’s virtual auction in 2020. His most expensive painting to date, however, remains his Three Studies Of Lucien Freud, (1969) painted during his time at the Royal College of Art, which sold for $142 million (£89 million) in 2013, making it - at the time- the most expensive painting ever sold at auction.

3 Works: Studies Of Lucian Freud by Francis Bacon

3 Works: Studies Of Lucian Freud © Francis Bacon 1969

1. £89.4M for Francis Bacon's 3 Works: Studies of Lucien Freud

Bacon and Freud met in 1945 and were almost inseparable for nearly three decades. Together they drank, gambled, gossiped and encouraged each other’s arts to greater heights. During their friendship, Bacon made three triptychs of Freud – 3 Works: Studies Of Lucian Freud was the last one he created.

The three paintings were, for a few years, sold to different collectors but eventually were reunited again as a triptych. When the work came up for auction at Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Evening Sale in New York on 12 November 2013, it was the subject of an intense six-minute bidding battle. At $142.4 million, it remains the most expensive work by Bacon at auction today.

Three Studies For A Portrait Of John Edwards by Francis Bacon

Three Studies For A Portrait Of John Edwards © Francis Bacon 1984

2. $80.8M for Francis Bacon's Three Studies for a Portrait of John Edwards

Bacon met East London bartender John Edwards in the early 1970s, when Edwards was 22 years old and the artist was in his sixties. While Bacon’s other friends dismissed Edwards as “a typical East End diamond geezer”, the pair became close companions for 16 years. The artist nicknamed Edwards “Eggs” to his Bacon and even called him “my only true friend”. He left his £11 million estate to the young Londoner after his death.

Three Studies For A Portrait Of John Edwards sold in Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Evening Sale in New York on 13 May 2014 for $80.8 million to an anonymous Asian buyer, according to the Irish Times.

Triptych Inspired By The Oresteia Of Aeschylus by Francis Bacon

Triptych Inspired By The Oresteia Of Aeschylus © Francis Bacon 1981

3. £68.7M for Francis Bacon's Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus

Triptychs were one of Bacon’s favourite painting formats. “So far as my work has any quality, I often feel perhaps it is the triptychs that have the most quality,” he has said. Triptych Inspired By The Oresteia Of Aeschylus references the 5th century B.C. Greek tragedy Oresteia by Aeschylus – a tale of murder, revenge and justice. Aeschylus’s stories had struck a chord with Bacon’s own experiences, the artist has said the Ancient Greek tragedian’s books “open up the valves of sensation for me”.

Sotheby’s estimated the triptych around $60 million but when it was offered in their Contemporary Art Evening Auction in New York on 29 June 2020, it soared to $84.5 million.

Triptych, 1976 by Francis Bacon

Triptych, 1976 © Francis Bacon 1976