For this month’s Catalogue Raisonné Focus we’re taking a look at ‘Figure in Sea’, c.1957, a canvas that remains one of Bacon’s most mysterious paintings. The date of production, 1957, is speculative. Its date has been estimated based on the work’s stylistic similarities to Bacon’s paintings inspired by Van Gogh, which were completed in that year.
Martin Harrison has pointed out that the triangular shape in the lower left is present in several paintings in the Van Gogh series. In Study for Portrait of Van Gogh II, 1957, not only is the triangle painted black, it is bordered by a similar red diagonal line. The three-quarters view of the shadowed face and body shape of the swimmer is also akin to Study for Portrait of van Gogh IV, 1957.
Apart from the Van Gogh series, comparable paintings are virtually non-existent. However, the seascapes seen in works by Courbet, Renoir and Monet may have informed ‘Figure in Sea’: within the sea, the dark, sketchily painted structure suggests that Bacon was intending to add something to the space. The fact that he left it as it was has been interpreted as a reason why he eventually came to abandon this painting, although it only serves to heighten the mysterious nature of the piece.
Suggestions for the inspiration behind many of Bacon’s paintings can be found in the surviving notes from his studio. For this work there are no specific clues, though there is a cryptic reference to ‘Figure of Japanese Swimmer’ in one of his copies of V.J. Stanēk, Introducing Monkeys, 1957.
‘Figure in Sea’ has only been displayed in a small number of exhibitions around the world since it was introduced to a private collection in 2007: The Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York; The Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin; The Art Gallery of New South Wales, Australia and in the Ordovas, London.
Read the painting’s full exhibition history and selected bibliography on the work’s dedicated website page.
Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné can be purchased through our distributor’s website.