This month’s Catalogue Raisonné focus celebrates the final instalment in Francis Bacon’s Van Gogh series – six paintings inspired by Van Gogh’s The Painter on the Road to Tarascon, 1888, exhibited at the Hanover Gallery in in March 1957.
After a seven-year phase during which his output of large paintings was dominated by sombre monochromes, Bacon emphatically broke out of the ‘black cavern’ with the Van Gogh series. Painted in some of the most vivid colours of his career, and applied with a broad, loaded brush, the thick impasto is suggestive of Karel Appel, Willem de Kooning and – especially – Chaim Soutine.
Bacon was required to produce sufficient paintings for his imminent exhibition at the Hanover Gallery, London, and two of the paintings were not delivered until after the exhibition had opened: stories abounded of visitors’ clothing being marked by the wet oil paint.
Excerpt: Martin Harrison, Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné (London: The Estate of Francis Bacon Publishing, 2016 p. 498).
Study for Portrait of Van Gogh VI, 1957, was one of the Van Gogh paintings delivered wet after the exhibition had opened. Circumstances probably dictated that it was painted rapidly, but this was not to its detriment. The agitated, expressionist violence of the paint is the most extreme and intoxicated of the series.
Bacon described Van Gogh’s figure as ‘more like a phantom of the road’ and in Study for Portrait of Van Gogh VI the figure is the most phantom-like of the series. More shadow than substance, the painter’s progress is about to be thwarted as the roadway in this turbulent landscape breaks up, parting like the Red Sea. The ‘splitting’ of the roadway recalls Soutine’s Céret landscapes, but more specifically the ‘crucified’ beast in Soutine’s Carcass of Beef (c. 1925, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York). Moreover, the expressive abandon of the paint and violent red in the foreground of Carcass of Beef are matched in Bacon’s painting.
Excerpt: Martin Harrison, Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné (London: The Estate of Francis Bacon Publishing, 2016 p. 508).
This painting – and series – signifies a break with the sombre backgrounds of the first half of the 1950s, and a permanent one. What followed was a period of transition. Three years later, in 1961, Bacon took over 7 Reece Mews: a first-floor studio that was to be the most important room in the artist’s life.
More recently, Study for Portrait of Van Gogh VI, 1957, was chosen by the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA) to feature in its 2014 exhibition: 'Art and Optimism in 1950s Britain'.
Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné can be purchased through our distributor’s website.