Exploring Francis Bacon’s Black Triptych Series

Francis Bacon was an iconic modern artist known for his triptychs. Take a look at one of his most famous series called The Black Triptychs.

May 17, 2024By Miles McMorrow, BA Art History

francis bacon black triptych series


Francis Bacon was a painter who rose above the categories of modern art. Without a definitive style, Bacon’s works exemplify all that it truly means to be a modernist. His individualism is the thing that earned him fame. His works are extremely stylized and easily recognizable. His artworks focus on the complexities of the human condition, suffering, tragedy, and intense morbidity.


Francis Bacon and Triptychs

campin merode altarpiece annunciation triptych
Annunciation Triptych (The Merode Altarpiece), Workshop of Robert Campin, 1427-28. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


Francis Bacon often formatted his works in three parts. These works are referred to as triptychs. The triptych is most commonly used in Christian depictions, primarily for altarpieces. Despite this association, Bacon was not a religious man, and these works were not meant to be read with such connotations. Still, their purpose tends to align with those of religious artworks. Many altarpieces that stand in churches act as a centerpiece for worship. More often than not, the middle panel portrays scenes from the life of Christ, with the crucifixion being one of the most commonly featured scenes.


This subject was also one that Bacon favored, as evidenced in multiple paintings such as Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) or Three Studies for a Crucifixion (1962). Yet, again, they are not Catholic in meaning; instead, the works focus on the feelings of sorrow and misery that are often associated with the death of Christ, and in turn, all of humanity. The gruesome nature of Bacon’s works can be jarring, but the pieces still stand as an important basis to understanding his life and his artistic role in the Modern era.


In Memory of George Dyer (1971)

Francis Bacon and George Dyer, John Deakins, 1965, via Sotheby’s.


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Arguably one of Bacon’s most famous collections of works is his series known as the Black Triptychs. This cycle consists of three paintings that were painted after the death of his lover, George Dyer. The two met in 1963, and soon began a tumultuous relationship marked by alcoholism and conflict. Dyer was raised surrounded by petty crime—something he never quite grew out of, even when shrouded by the riches of Bacon’s success. As his primary muse, Dyer allowed himself to enjoy the pleasures associated with Bacon’s fame, though he was not quite fond of the stylistic depictions of himself. Days before the grand opening of the artist’s retrospective at the Grand Palais, Bacon discovered Dyer’s body in their hotel bathroom. He committed suicide by overdosing on alcohol and barbiturates.


In Memory of George Dyer, Francis Bacon, 1971. Source: The Beyeler Foundation, Riehen.


The first in the Black Triptych sequence is In Memory of George Dyer (1971), an uneasy yet heart-wrenching depiction of Bacon’s grief. The central panel greets the viewer with a stairway–mimicking the staircase of the Parisian hotel in which Dyer passed. It forces the audience’s interaction, urging us to walk up and go into the scene, though our path is slightly blocked by a silhouetted man. Two additional figures flank the left and right sides of this piece.


Bacon depicts Dyer as a man characterized by tension and energy, as the leftmost figure curls into a ball, seemingly vibrating with its shaking form. Dyer on the right is represented by the upper half of his body, lying upon a table. His face, as one of the more comprehensively modeled facades of Bacon’s, is a side profile reflected in a mirror, jarringly awake and alive.


Triptych–August 1972

francis bacon triptych august 1972
Triptych–August 1972, Francis Bacon, 1972. Source: Tate Modern, London.


The composition of Triptych–August 1972 aligns more with the traditional formatting of religious triptych scenes. This set-up mimics works such as Hans Memling’s Donne Triptych, in which the middle scene depicts the central story of the Virgin Mary holding her child, while representations of saints stand in the left and right panels. In the center of Bacon’s work lies the action: coagulated forms lie on the ground, their limbs and faces undeterminable. Flanking this on the sides are singular, more distinct figures. It is believed that the left is a portrait of Dyer, while the right is a self-portrait of the artist.


memling donne triptych
The Donne Triptych, Hans Memling, 1478. Source: The National Gallery, London.


The scene in the middle is quite dynamic, though it is hard to tell what exactly is going on here. Many scholars have interpreted it as sexual. Perhaps the outer scenes represent the two lovers before or after intercourse, while the central work shows them during the act. Bacon took inspiration for this middle work from a series of photographs depicting wrestlers by Eadweard Muybridge—the allusion can be drawn between this work and the fifth photo on the top row of Muybridge’s negatives. There is a connotation of sex conflated with violence, an association that is all too apparent in the real unfolding of Dyer and Bacon’s relationship. With a significant age gap and a power imbalance, the explosive dynamic between two men was, no doubt, filled with a skewed portrayal of love.


muybridge wresting photography
Wrestling, Eadweard Muybridge, 1878-81. Source: Getty Museum, Los Angeles.


The two full-bodied figures on the sides seem to bleed into the background of the doorway, creating an uneasy feeling of disjointedness. Their eyes are closed, and they do not face each other, despite the reference to their sexual act in the middle. This work, as common of all of Bacon’s triptychs, cannot be read linearly. Instead, Bacon most likely meant these works to be seen as snapshots of his life—maybe even as diary entries since the titles include specific dates. Bacon and Dyer depict the turbulent nature of their relationship, as the artist reminisces on the last few moments of his lover’s life.


Triptych, May–June 1973

bacon triptych may june 1973
Triptych, May–June 1973, Francis Bacon, 1973. Source: Wikipedia.


The next and final sequence of the Black Triptych series is Triptych, May–June 1973. Here, the viewer sees bits of the events leading up to Dyer’s death. Bacon shows these scenes from several different angles, though they are all located in the same place: through a doorway shrouded in black, assumed to be the bathroom where Dyer’s body was found. The darkness surrounds Dyer, while the red walls jut out towards the viewer. The setting places the audience into the scene, as we stand in front of Dyer and his body. We are almost close enough to touch, but not active enough to help the dying man. This positioning may reflect Bacon’s feelings of helplessness and grief.


francis bacon triptych may june left
The left panel of Triptych, May–June 1973


The left panel, though read first, depicts the final moment. Dyer’s body is shown slumped over and faceless, on a toilet. His body melds into the black hue behind him, which even seems to spill out of the room itself. As a juxtaposition, the right scene shows Dyer leaning over a sink, and while the action is not clear, it can easily be assumed that he is vomiting due to his overdose.


The right panel of Triptych, May–June 1973


Dyer’s face is a little more identifiable, but his bodily form still melts into the black around him. The angle is different here—it seems as if the audience is seeing the scene from the other side of the bathroom. This aspect was intentionally created by Bacon, as it represents the set up of their hotel rooms–they shared two bedrooms, conjoined by a bathroom. The differing viewpoints of the left and right panels mimic the two perspectives of the scene.


bacon triptych may june center
The central panel of Triptych, May–June 1973


The central panel is the most intense and jarring one. Dyer is still alive here, just as he is on the right, but it is clear that he is in the process of dying. His face is distorted and covered in anguish. A large patch of black leaks out of the room, intruding into the viewer’s space. The blob is formless and non-distinguishable, as it seems to bleed out of Dyer’s body. The flanking panels have him caged in the bathroom, making him inaccessible to the audience. Here, the blackness emanates from the room, opening up his space. The outward movement contradicts the arrows that direct the audience toward Dyer on the other two panels—they point at him in a way that dramatically highlights the scenes.


The Impact of Francis Bacon’s Black Triptych Series 

Three Studies for Portrait of George Dyer, Francis Bacon, 1964. Source: Christie’s.


Together, these three compositions work to portray the fierce turmoil that Bacon experienced after the passing of George Dyer. Despite their tempestuous relationship, it is clear that his death affected the artist greatly. Dyer continued to appear in Bacon’s works, even if he was not named. The loss of his primary muse could have allowed him to steer away from painting. Still, instead, it granted him a new inspiration that posits Bacon as one of the most intensely emotional artists of the 20th century.


george dyer bacon studio deakin
George Dyer in Francis Bacon’s studio, John Deakin, 1965, Source: Sotheby’s.


Francis Bacon worked to portray the alienable feelings associated with grief and death. Through his Black Triptych compositions, the audience is confronted with these intense reactions, forced to be both a witness and an active participant in the scenes. These distressing depictions of the scenes leading up to George Dyer’s death evoke an array of emotions in the viewer. Despite their bleakness, Bacon’s works are endlessly captivating, providing viewers with an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the artist himself.

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By Miles McMorrowBA Art HistoryMiles holds a Bachelor of Arts in Art History from Juniata College. They specialize in Modernism, primarily in Expressionist and Dadaist works. As a recent college graduate, they are exploring the fascinating work force within the art world, with a particular interest in writing and criticism. While history is their greatest passion, Miles also enjoys reading classic literature, listening to a wide array of music, and trying out new meals to cook.