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  • Forming part of Francis Bacon’s celebrated papal portrait series which spanned over two decades, 'Pope with Owls', circa 1958 is positioned at a critical juncture in the evolution of the artist’s interrogations into one of the most recognizable subjects in his oeuvre. The work takes as its reference the canonical portrait of Pope Innocent X by Velázquez, an image which acted as a touchstone for the artist’s explorations into the rendering of flesh and psychological deconstruction between 1949 and 1971. The Papal paintings have gained art historical significance not only for Bacon’s masterful execution but also for their subversion of the old master source; in so doing, Bacon succeeded in increasing the iconoclastic potency of his own version and elevated himself to the position of inheritor of a distinguished tradition. The work arrives for the first time at auction having been held in the same prestigious private collection for nearly four decades.

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Much of Bacon’s best work is characterized by the evidence he leaves of the very physical act of his painterly process. Bacon conveys the viscerality of flesh through the immediate gestures of his loaded brush. Discrete blotches of yellow, blue, white, and lilac coalesce to form a haunting mien in grit and grimace. Drags of pigment tussle with staccatoed impasto passages culminating in a dissolution of anatomy suffused with referentiality. 

     

     

  • The circle over the right eye undoubtedly echoes the screaming nurse from the Odessa Steps sequence in Eisenstein's The Battleship Potemkin—a motif that Bacon had grafted onto his "Popes" since 1949. However, it is the large loop denoting an ear and the grimaced teeth that most closely recall the photographs of Bacon’s lover at the time, Peter Lacey. Indeed, the greenish-yellow smudge across the other eye socket and the smear of dark purple from the nose reverb with the personal violence of that ill-fated relationship.

     

     

    “One of the Greatest Paintings in the World”

     

     

    "I think it is one of the greatest portraits that have ever been made, and I became obsessed by it. I buy book after book with this illustration in it of the Velazquez Pope, because it just haunts me, and it opens up all sorts of feelings and areas of – I was going to say – imagination, even, in me...it’s the magnificent color of it."
    —Francis Bacon

     

     

     

    Sheet from unidentified book with color plate of Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X, (1650). Artwork: © 2021 Estate of Francis Bacon/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London

    Sheet from unidentified book with color plate of Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X, (1650). Artwork: © 2021 Estate of Francis Bacon/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London

     

     

     

    Bacon always avoided giving a precise explanation as to what it was that had obsessed him about Velázquez's Pope, but its reproduction (he avoided seeing the work in Rome lest it have a negative impact on his understanding of the work) stimulated decades of creative output. Acting as the ideal foundation to conflate his diverse range of sources, from cinema and photography, to henchman and lovers, it is no surprise that Bacon hung photographs of Goebbels and Himmler alongside his Velázquez reproduction on his studio wall.

     

     

     

     

    Hunter Montage of material from Bacon's studio, 7 Cromwell Place, c.1950. Top row: Himmler and Goebbels (Picture Post); wounded riders 1936; Velazquez, Pope Innocent X; Nadar, Portrait of Baudelaire. Middle row: Page 99 from Roger Manvell, History of British Film 1896-1906; Grunewald, Christ Carrying the Cross; Bulla photograph of Nevsky Prospekt; three images of Jack Bilbo. Bottom row: Rodin, The Thinker; Rhinoceros from Marius Maxwell, Stalking Game with a Camera. Artwork: © 2021 Estate of Francis Bacon/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London

    Hunter Montage of material from Bacon's studio, 7 Cromwell Place, c.1950. Top row: Himmler and Goebbels (Picture Post); wounded riders 1936; Velázquez, Pope Innocent X; Nadar, Portrait of Baudelaire. Middle row: Page 99 from Roger Manvell, History of British Film 1896-1906; Grunewald, Christ Carrying the Cross; Bulla photograph of Nevsky Prospekt; three images of Jack Bilbo. Bottom row: Rodin, The Thinker; Rhinoceros from Marius Maxwell, Stalking Game with a Camera. Artwork: © 2021 Estate of Francis Bacon/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London

     

     

    Bacon’s enduring fascination with this subject began with Head VI, 1949 (Arts Council Collection, London) and extended through 40 iterations executed over the subsequent two decades until his finale, Study for a Red Pope – Second Version, 1971. There are largely considered to be two inflection points in his interrogation of the subject. The first was the series of eight works entitled Study for a Portrait, which the artist executed in the summer of 1953 for his first show in America at Durlacher’s in New York as well as his Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X. These dramatic purple-robed “screaming” figures are set in a schematic and deeply shadowed space that serves to augment the overriding mood of terror and torment. Over the course of the 1950s, his iterations on the subject became increasingly disfigured.

     

    The second came in 1961 when Bacon started to make the capes of his “Popes” scarlet. These “Popes” set in black expansive voids on schematic thrones share none of the crushing sense of torture and anguish of the earlier works. They are instead characterized by their silent disillusionment and impotence—oozing down the canvas rather than rattling against their “shuttered” space cages.

     

     

    “It’s the Magnificent Color of It”

     

    Extending from the darker papal paintings of the 1950s, 'Pope with Owls' acts as a crucial step in the development of Bacon’s engagement with the subject. Not only does 'Pope with Owls' still engender the haunting agony of his “Popes” from his first impulses engaging with the subject matter, but it also moves towards the violently brilliant palette and full-length figure which would go on to define his “Popes” of 1961 through the subsequent decade.

     

  • The Evolution of Bacon’s Popes

  • “I want a record of an image. And with the record of the image, of course, comes a mood, because you can’t make an image without it creating a mood."
    —Francis Bacon

     

    In 'Pope with Owls', the purple robes of his 1953 Popes begin to anticipate the radical scarlet that characterize his "Popes" of 1961. Having declared himself to be in awe of Velázquez's "magnificent color," it is here in Tangier that Bacon begins to avail himself of a more baroque palette. It has been argued that the impetus to experiment with a more vivid color palette was precipitated by the bright Moroccan light. Here, the deep purples act as a chromatic backdrop to the richer, red undertones that Bacon has built up in successive layers of light and shadow. Following the gestural undulation of the cape’s opening, Bacon’s media seems to roll off his figure’s shoulders in a downward trajectory, pooling in the voluminous arm holes.

     

     

     

    Mark Rothko, Green and Maroon, 1953. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., Artwork: © 2021 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    Mark Rothko, Green and Maroon, 1953. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., Artwork: © 2021 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

     

     

    These gestural lines evolve into the vigorous sweeps of Bacon’s dry-bristle brush used to execute the white robes of the papal dress. Their very materiality, descending into a haunting green void, engenders the space to oscillate between tangibility and flatness. This shift from the inky gloom of the 1950s "Popes" anticipates the color which Bacon would use often as a background for much of his best work in the early 1960s.

     

     

    Tangier: “A Place Made for Rows”

     

     

    "It was during those years [the 1950s], filled with rebuffs and reversals of fortune, but also with extraordinary invention and daring, that Bacon began to explore in depth all his great themes while trying out a number of others that he eventually discarded. It was, in my view, the most fertile single decade of his career. Never again would the Baconian world be so rich and diverse."
    —Michael Peppiatt

     

    Bacon's visits to Morocco in the late 1950s marked the beginning of an important turning point in both his art and his life and it is one that can perhaps be seen to some degree reflected in this unique papal portrait. Bacon began going to Tangier primarily to visit his long-term lover Peter Lacy—a man with whom he had a tumultuous relationship that haunted his output throughout the 1950s. Bacon met Lacy in 1952 at the Colony Room in Soho. A former fighter pilot who served in the Battle of Britain, Lacy was a troubled man prone to vehement bouts of rage, sadistic violence, and prolonged periods of self-hatred. Their mercurial connection provided the artist with one of his most important character studies.

     

    Bacon departed for Tangier in May 1957 for what would prove his longest stay there – fourteen months. At that time Bacon was hoping to settle in Tangier and after a brief attempt at living with Lacy, which Bacon characterized as “disastrous as you can imagine,” he rented a fifth-floor apartment on the avenue d’Espagne, in the “new town” of Tangier which contained a studio and separate room for guests.

     

     

     

    Peter Lacy in front of an Unidentified Building, somewhere in the Mediterranean, 1950s.  Artwork: © 2021 Estate of Francis Bacon/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London

    Peter Lacy in front of an Unidentified Building, somewhere in the Mediterranean, 1950s.  Artwork: © 2021 Estate of Francis Bacon/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London

     

     

    Lacy was among the first members of Bacon’s circle to feature in his portraits, initially appearing in Study of Figure in a Landscape, 1952 (Phillips Collection, Washington D. C.), inspiring his groundbreaking depictions of coupled male figures and the Man in Blue works, as well as Bacon's first portrait triptych of 1953. The artist continued to paint his lover while in Tangier, including Man at Washbasin which shows the white glint of teeth in a bestial grit seen here in 'Pope with Owls'.

     

    As the only man Bacon had ever fell “head-over-heels” in love with, the artist was drawn to the paradoxical mixture of brutality and fragility that Lacy embodied. Viewed in this light, the present work’s raised arm may be seen to quiver with the still painful memories of his lover’s violent tendencies. Indeed, the raised arms could just as easily be read as a signal of anguish and supplication as that of prayer and benediction. Here, the sacred hand is subverted from the act of blessing, transforming into a symbol of pain, violence, and despair. The motion photography of Muybridge was particularly noteworthy in this regard, and the arms here are a key example of this influence from this period.

     

     

     

     

    [left] Pope Pius XII blessing the crowd gathered in St. Peter's Square. Image: Fox Photos/Getty Images [right] Eadweard Muybridge, A hand rises and falls, 1887. Wellcome Collection, London

    [left] Pope Pius XII blessing the crowd gathered in St. Peter's Square. Image: Fox Photos/Getty Images [right] Eadweard Muybridge, A hand rises and falls, 1887. Wellcome Collection, London

     

     

    “I’ve Always Been Haunted by Them”

     

     

    "I am working a lot here. I have finished 4 I think. 2 are the best things I have done. I am doing two series one of the Pope with owls quite different from the others and a serial portrait of a person in a room. I am very excited about it."
    —Francis Bacon to Erica Brausen, Tangier

     

    During his time in Tangier in 1957, Bacon was exploring imagery of animals—owls, a chimp, a gorilla skull—for his upcoming show at Galerie Rive Droite, Paris. As Michael Peppiatt explains, the key notion that “man is an animal, was explored in numerous paintings throughout the 1950s…having established this disturbing parity between man and animal, Bacon vastly increased the stakes when, in place of the anonymous heads, he first enclosed the screaming features within the paraphernalia of the Pope.”i

     

    As Bacon espoused to his dealer at the time, Erica Brausen, this manifested in two iterations of Popes with Owls. The presence of the two watchful creatures in the present work, proffers an unsettling mien to the composition, capturing the gaze of the spectator as if to bear witness. Painting (Pope with Owls), 1958 (Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels) is the second work in the series that Bacon brought back with him to London. As Martin Harrison explains of the nocturnal bird’s position in Bacon’s iconography, “he had linked them (always latterly, in pairs) with Popes as dark antagonists.”ii

     

     

     

    [left] Detail of the present work [right] Newly fledged long-eared owls (daylight) in Eric J. Hosking and Cyril W Newberry, Birds of the night, 1945

    Newly fledged long-eared owls (daylight) in Eric J. Hosking and Cyril W Newberry, Birds of the night, 1945

     

     

    One of Bacon’s first mature paintings, Painting, 1946, developed out of a study of a bird alighting on a field. Avian protagonists could be found throughout the 1950s, above all in works such as Fragment of a Crucifixion, 1950 (Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven), in which the central figure appears to have been based on the image of an owl. Two owls have a prominent position on a rectilinear structure in the foreground of the painting of Pope no. 3, 1960, and again in Study for Portrait (with Two Owls), 1963 (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art).

     

  • Birds, in particular owls, occupy an important place in Bacon’s imagery. Indeed, images of birds and animals form one of the largest groups of subject-matter in the archive of Bacon’s studio, which was a reservoir of photographs, books, newspaper clippings, and other ephemera, all splattered with paint and crumpled from frequent handling. Bacon most likely found his source imagery in Eric Hosking’s Birds of the Night and Birds in Action, of which there were several editions in his studio.

     

    While Bacon’s output after more than a year in Tangier, and despite his optimistic outlook, did not result in the triumphant London show he and Brausen hoped to put on, the time was incredibly formative in setting the direction of his next decade in painting and 'Pope with Owls' foretells the next evolutionary step Bacon would make in his most canonical works. “The experience of North Africa remained central, however, transforming the artist’s sense of color, as if, almost literally, the space of his pictorial imagination had been flooded with violent light and stark contrast,” Michael Peppiatt explains, “it also influenced Bacon in less immediately perceptible ways, deepening and confirming his feelings about life and about human beings.”iii

     

     

     

     

    i Michael Peppiatt, Francis Bacon in the 1950s, exh. cat., Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts, Norwich, 2006, p. 26.

    ii Martin Harrison, Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné, 1958-1971, vol. III, London, 2016, p. 736.

    iii Michael Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, New York, 2009, p. 216.

    • Provenance

      Nicolas Brusilowski (acquired directly from the artist in Tangier in 1959)
      Private Collection, USA
      Lynn Epstein (acquired by April 1976)
      Brook Street Gallery, London (acquired by April 1977)
      Private Collection, Switzerland
      Thomas Ammann Fine Art, Zurich
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1986

    • Exhibited

      Ludwigshafen am Rhein, Wilhelm-Hack Museum, Apokalypse, Ein Prinzip Hoffnung?, September 8 – November 17, 1985, no. 141, p. 278 (illustrated, p. 279; titled as Portrait du pape)
      Seattle Art Museum, Seattle Collects Paintings: Works from Private Collections, May 22 – September 7, 1997 (installation view illustrated on the exhibition guide cover; titled as Portrait of Pope)
      London, Gagosian Gallery, Francis Bacon: Triptychs, June 20 – August 4, 2006, pp. 12, 32 (illustrated, p. 13; titled as Portrait of a Pope)

    • Literature

      Robin Updike, "SAM Offers A Look At Our Neighbors' Art," The Seattle Times, May 21, 1997 (titled as Portrait of Pope)
      Martin Harrison, ed., Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné: Volume III 1958-1971, London, 2016, no. 58-09, p. 554 (illustrated, p. 555)

    • Artist Biography

      Francis Bacon

      Irish-British • 1909 - 1992

      Francis Bacon was a larger-than-life figure during his lifetime and remains one now more than ever. Famous for keeping a messy studio, and even more so for his controversial, celebrated depictions of papal subjects and bullfights, often told in triptychs, Bacon signified the blinding dawn of the Modern era. His signature blurred portraits weren't murky enough to stave off his reputation as highly contentious—his paintings were provocations against social order in the people's eye. But, Bacon often said, "You can't be more horrific than life itself."
       
      In conversation with yet challenging the conventions of Modern art, Bacon was known for his triptychs brutalizing formalist truths, particularly Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, which Bacon debuted in London in 1944, and Three Studies of Lucian Freud, which became famous when it set the record for most expensive work of art at auction at the time it sold in 2013.

      View More Works

Property from a Distinguished American Collection

Ο ◆16

'Pope with Owls'

oil on canvas
57 1/4 x 43 in. (145.4 x 109.2 cm)
Painted circa 1958.

Full Cataloguing

Estimate
$35,000,000 - 45,000,000 

Sold for $33,000,000

Contact Specialist

Amanda Lo Iacono
New York Head of Department & Head of Auctions
+1 212 940 1278
[email protected]

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 17 November 2021