In June 2022, Study for Portrait of Lucian Freud (1964) sold at Sotheby’s for £43 million, the most expensive contemporary painting sold in London since 2014. The price is second to Three Studies of Lucian Freud (1969), which holds the record, at $127 million, from a 2014 sale at Christie’s.
A spokesperson for Sotheby’s auction house said that the painting “exemplifies an iconic pairing of two of the most significant painters within the canon of twentieth-century art.”
Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud were close friends from 1944 until about 1985. Both frequented the same Soho drinking spots, where they met mutual friends such as Frank Auerbach, Stephen Spender and Henrietta Moraes, the latter of whom was painted by both artists.
According to Daniel Farson, they were virtually ‘inseparable’ during the 1950s and ‘60s and Lady Caroline Blackwood remembered having dinner with Bacon ‘nearly every day’ for the duration of her marriage to Freud, from 1953 to 1959.
Perhaps it was a constant, underlying rivalry in art, then, that ultimately undermined their friendship to the point of their falling out in the 1980s.
As painters, Bacon and Freud were equally committed to the human figure, whose essence of flesh and bone they both sought to grasp. However, they employed very different methods to reach their goal. While Bacon developed his paintings from photographic material, Freud only painted from life.
Despite their disparate approaches, their close bond echoes distinctively in each other’s work. While Freud’s early painting is determined by a hyper-realistic, linear style, in the late 1950s, he began using thicker impasto which was more freely applied with coarser brushes as timed passed. In late paintings, such as Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995), the paint application reached almost abstract qualities. It has been speculated that Bacon’s example may have played a role in this development.
Freud executed several drawings of Bacon, and Bacon painted many portraits of Freud, often using portrait photographs by John Deakin as a pictorial springboard. This is the case in the recently-sold Study for Portrait of Lucian Freud (1964), which was probably (freely) based on photographs John Deakin took for Bacon of the sitter on his bed. Martin Harrison described these portraits as “angst-ridden”, writing that:
In this painting the head is not only distorted but further ‘damaged’ by the red and emerald green marks around the mouth. The clenched fists on the banquette add to the uneasy atmosphere.
Excerpt: Martin Harrison, Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné (London: The Estate of Francis Bacon Publishing, 2016 p. 786).
Freud died in London in 2011, aged 88. Shortly before his own death in 1992, Bacon described the end of their relationship as ‘rather sad’. Regardless of ending, the artists inspired and compelled each other, their legacy living on in their oeuvres.