Francis Bacon, the acknowledged master of late 20th century portraiture, believed that abstract art devoid of human content lacked emotional resonance. Refusing to abandon figuration, he created a momentous oeuvre of isolated and tortured individuals who appear to be living at the extreme edge of existence. The most recognizable figures in Bacon's canon are his Papal portraits of which Study from Innocent X is a profoundly powerful example. Bacon was deeply affected by Diego Velázquez' Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1650) and it became his most famous arena for the rendering of flesh in all its tactile glory and psychological deconstruction. Engaging with the grand tradition of the Old Masters to produce an iconic visage for our times, Bacon reinvented the public image of the Pope - arguably the most powerful man of earlier centuries - to capture the intimate pain and private psychoses of modern life. Study from Innocent X contains all of the emotive power of the darker papal paintings of the 1950s while introducing to the series innovations that would characterize his masterpieces of the 1960s - a violently brilliant palette and the full-length contorted figure.
Bacon created approximately 50 canvases in the series of Popes, including early works from 1946 to 1950 which he subsequently destroyed. The first extant work is Head VI (1949) following through to 1965, with one final painting, Study for Red Pope, done in 1971 and based closely on Study from Innocent X. As the present work demonstrates, Bacon's chosen task in painting the Pope was not one of representing an image but rather re-representing the meanings inherent to Velázquez' portrait: stature, presence, public role and the very mechanics of being. In essence, Bacon gets under the skin, goes beyond the surface of the image, and engages a series of emotions that lie at the heart of ordinary daily existence in the most extraordinary way.
This 1962 work is the painting that most directly engages the palette of the Velázquez. It is the first canvas in the papal series to evoke both the Pope's red robes and the red velvet of the throne and drapes in the background of the Spanish master's portrait, in contrast to Bacon's previous use of dark blue, green or black backgrounds in the Popes. In a series of six Pope canvases done in 1961, Bacon arrayed the figure in red robes, but the throne and background remained somber. The fiery palette of vivid orange-red and maroon red hues in the present work is reminiscent of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944 (Collection of Tate Britain in London), the other early masterpiece in which Bacon explored the primal suffering of flesh and spirit. This grand triptych shares another signature motif with the Pope series; the focus on the mouth - gaping or clenched - as the artist’s most expressive tool.
In concert with the Velázquez (which the artist refused to view in person rather than in reproduction), Bacon's other source material was the film still from Sergei Eisenstein's The Battleship Potemkin - the close-up of a nurse on the Odessa steps with open mouth, bloody face and broken glasses. This agonized image with the silent scream gave birth to distorted faces throughout Bacon's oeuvre and was employed to great effect in the Popes. In Study from Innocent X, the grimacing face contains traces of the broken lenses, while the vigorous impasto and brushstrokes of the face convey the anguish of human strife. As Bacon has famously stated, "I wanted to paint the scream more than the horror" and in the facial contortions of Study from Innocent X, the aggressively applied pigment captures just such a sense of the passage of existential experience. Chaim Soutine was one of the artists most highly regarded by Bacon, and many affinities exist between the two artist's ability to capture "Flesh that is more like flesh than flesh itself, nerves more like nerves than nerves,..." (Elie Faure on Soutine in 1929 as quoted in Exh. Cat., Cologne, Galerie Gmurzynska, The Impact of Soutine (1893-1943): de Kooning, Pollock, Dubuffet, Bacon, 2002, p. 95) Both possessed a passion for oil paint - a desire to wed the ferocity of paint handling with the delineating capacity of drawing. In Study from Innocent X, the prelate's face is built up with agitated commingling of discrete blotches of skin tone - a bright yellow next to the red of flesh or blue next to white or lilac. Just as features and poses are presented in more than one aspect within one image, the overall color of flesh is divided into its component hues. Scumbled and scraped with feverish originality, the textured pigment also articulates the teeth and bone that lie beneath.
Bacon found particular inspiration in the new organic language of Picasso's Cubist portraits of the early 1900s. Picasso's structured multiple viewpoints are glimpsed in Bacon's fluid forms, in particular the full-length figures that emerge in the paintings of the 1960s. The distorted visages of Bacon's silent 'screams' that encompassed the 'sacred and profane' of the papal portraits and the Crucifixion paintings are now matched in eloquence by torqued bodies, as if the complexity of psychological insight in the modern world cannot be wholly contained in the shifting aspects of a face alone.
Raised up on a dais in Study from Innocent X, Bacon's Pope is presented as a full-length figure for the first time in the series. Sweeping his loaded brush in a series of swift gestures, Bacon carves out a spirit trapped in pent-up emotion. As in other paintings of the 1960s, Bacon's organic mutations of twisted bodies simultaneously dismember and complete the human image, as it combines intimacy and brutality. In a 1964 discussion of his self-portraits, Bacon stated "...in a painting that's even worth looking at, the image must be twisted if it is to make a renewed assault on the nervous system." (Exh. Cat., Valencia, IVAM, Francis Bacon: the Sacred and the Profane, 2003, p. 186)
Here the prelate remains in his throne, abstracted into rectilinear and ovoid shapes, within a space articulated by an elliptical shape that appears often in Bacon's paintings. As in Landscape Near Malabata, Tangier (1963) and Study for Bullfight No. 1 (1969), the ellipse is the compressed arena where movement through space connotes a shallow third dimension of depth. Often these backgrounds and platforms of Bacon's paintings can be closed and claustrophobic. In Study from Innocent X, the bold palette of violent red and orange combines with the brushy greens and browns of the lower register - more indicative of exteriors such as Landscape Near Malabata - to open up a more activated and generalized environ. They provide a theatrical space in which the existential drama takes place.
Straightforward verisimilitude, what he termed "illustration" was abhorrent to Bacon who wanted to transcend representation to expose something more brutal, vital and irrational: "The living quality is what you have to get. In painting a portrait the problem is to find a technique by which you can give over all the pulsations of a person." (Bacon as quoted in David Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon, London, 2000, p. 98) With the Pope series, Bacon succeeded in tempering the distant formalism of the art historical state painting in combination with the spontaneity and immediacy of a photographic still to produce a wholly original figurative icon. In the 1962 Study from Innocent X, the vivid palette, full-length twisted figure and the activated space break new ground in this most famous of all Bacon's series. As Bacon stated in 1964 "I try to retain the greatest possible tension between the original and the re-created experience. And then there is always the desire to make the game a little more complicated, to give the tradition a new twist. ..."(Ibid., p. 186)
Oil on canvas
London, Tate Gallery; Mannheim, Kunsthalle; Turin, Galleria Civica d'Arte Moderna; Zurich, Kunsthaus; Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, Francis Bacon, May 1962 - February 1963, cat. no. 89, illustrated in color (as Red Pope on Dais, London); cat. no. 78, illustrated in color (Mannheim); cat no. 76, p. 181, illustrated in color (Turin); cat no. 77, illustrated in color (Zurich) and cat. no. 69 (Amsterdam)
New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Francis Bacon, October 1963 - January 1964, cat no. 55, p. no.64, illustrated (as Man Dressed in Red on Dais)
London, Tate Gallery, Francis Bacon, May - August 1985, cat. no. 38, n. p., illustrated in color
Basel, Galerie Beyeler, Francis Bacon: Retrospective, 1987, cat. no. 14, n.p., illustrated in color
78 x 55 3/4 in. 198 x 141.5 cm.
Cimaise, Series X, No. 1, Jan.-Feb. 1963, p. 24
Luigi Carluccio, ed., Il Colleczionista d'arte moderna, Turin, 1963, p. 12, illustrated
Ronald Alley, Francis Bacon, New York, 1964, cat no.199, pp. 142-143, illustrated in color
Exh. Cat., London, Marlborough Fine Art Ltd., Francis Bacon: Recent Paintings, 1967, p. 37, illustrated
Exh.Cat., Paris, Galeries nationales du Grand Palais (and traveling), Francis Bacon, 1971, cat no. 40bis, p. 70, illustrated in color
John Russell, Francis Bacon, London, 1971, p. 43, no. 16, illustrated
John Russell, Francis Bacon, Geneva, 1971, p. 82, pl. 43, p. 82, illustrated in color
Lorenza Trucchi, Francis Bacon, Milan, 1975, pl. no. 78, n.p., illustrated in color
Michel Leiris, Francis Bacon, Full face and in profile, Oxford, 1983, pl. no. 21, n.p., illustrated in color
Michel Leiris, Francis Bacon, Paris, 1987, pl. 20, p. 35, illustrated in color
Michel Leiris, Francis Bacon, New York, 1988, pl. 20, n.p., illustrated in color
Francis Bacon, In Conversation with Michel Archimbaud, London, 1993, pl. 9, p. 56, illustrated in color
Exh. Cat., New York, Tony Shafrazi Gallery, Francis Bacon: Important Paintings from the Estate, 1998, p. 56, illustrated in color
Exh. Cat., Valencia, IVAM Institute Valencià d'Art Modern (and traveling), Francis Bacon, Lo Sagrado y lo Profano (The Sacred and Profane), 2003, p. 28 and p. 147, illustrated in color
Marlborough Fine Art Ltd., London
Julian J. and Joachim Jean Aberbach, New York
Acquired by the present owner's father from the above circa 1975