Understanding Francis Bacon Through 3 Studies

Comprehending the works of Francis Bacon can be quite difficult. Studying his triptychs can allow the viewer to get inside the mind of the artist.

Apr 19, 2024By Miles McMorrow, BA Art History

francis bacon understanding


Modern art is notoriously difficult to understand. The mix of psychology and philosophy that loom over this period can make the art of this era difficult to digest. Modernism is marked by the rejection of tradition, ushering in decades of innovation within the art world. Artists worked to define themselves as individuals, catering to personal styles, tastes, and inspiration. The artist Francis Bacon is one of the most important modern artists. With his extraordinary triptych works, commonly titled Three Studies, Bacon elicits intense emotions from the viewer, inspired by relationships in his personal life.


Who was Francis Bacon?

Painting, Francis Bacon, 1946. Source: The Museum of Modern Art, New York


Francis Bacon (1909-1992) was an Irish-British artist who defied categorical style, though he was often associated with surrealism. Bacon rose to fame with paintings that focused on the intensity of the human condition. He first started painting in the early 1900s, with his first work Crucifixion (1933). After being disillusioned with the severe criticisms, he turned away from the profession for some time.


francis bacon crucifixion 1933
Crucifixion, Francis Bacon, 1933. Source: MB Art Foundation


Bacon returned to art after working as an interior designer with one of his first mature works Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944). This work represents some of the largest inspirations and themes in Bacon’s works. The reference to a crucifixion is a recurring motif in many of his paintings. The allusion here is not necessarily to the Christian religion but to the monolith of human suffering. The artist took inspiration from the Greek Eumenides, or Furies, as the titular figures are anthropomorphic creatures that evoke a feeling of unease. The form of a triptych is of utmost importance. Once again calling on religious iconography, Bacon composes his canvases in these sets of threes as a way to adduce the linear form of story-telling.


bacon three studies figures base crucifixion 1944
Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, Francis Bacon, 1944. Source: Tate Modern, London.

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In studying three of Three Studies works by Bacon, his audience can get a better sense of what his creations mean. The reference to religion, despite being an atheist, reveals a deeper purpose within his paintings. Bacon was raised in London, but he held a strong connection to his birthplace of Ireland—a country largely dominated by Catholicism. The composition of the triptych allowed Bacon an act of iconoclasm—it gave him something to violate. One can get a glimpse into Bacon’s life by looking at his mature pieces. When looking at artworks that show crucifixions, friends, and self-portraits, Bacon’s purpose and goals as an artist are unveiled to us.


Three Studies for a Crucifixion (1962)

francis bacon three studies crucifixion 1962
Three Studies for a Crucifixion, Francis Bacon, 1962. Source: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.


Three Studies for a Crucifixion (1962) is not entirely unlike the work from 1944, though the subject matter is a little different. Here, the figures are slightly more human, though still largely abstract and removed from the anthropoid form. Burnt orange dominates the canvas, much like the color does in the 1944 painting. This hue is abrasive and jarring, but it works as the connecting factor between the three panels. The figures in this work are gory as they seem to flail in pain and anguish.


bacon three studies crucifixion left panel
The left panel of Three Studies for a Crucifixion (1962)


The leftmost canvas of the triptych holds two noticeably human figures, but their faces are unrecognizable. Shapes that resemble a pair of skinless legs jut inward onto the canvas, forcing the viewer to become an active part of the composition. The figures look towards the audience as if we have intruded on a private scene of which we are unaware. This gesture makes us feel uneasy, stuck in a position where we are powerless to act, but also not quite passive.


bacon three studies crucifixion center panel
Central panel of Three Studies for a Crucifixion (1962)


In the middle of the composition lies another figure, this time on a bed. Once again, it’s facing the viewer. This creature seems far less human, as it resembles a jumbled mess of bloodied body parts. Yet, it is still humanoid, unlike the eerie creatures in Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944). Red splatters across the mattress and the wall, as the drawn curtains forcefully place the audience within the room that we are unable to escape from. The audience is, once again, constrained to simply witness the scene unfolding before us.


bacon three studies crucifixion right panel
Right panel of Three Studies for a Crucifixion (1962)


The final panel on the right is where the actual scene of the Crucifixion lies. Yet, it is still not quite clear what is meant to be depicted here. This figure, the least humane of the group, seems to slither in a serpentine form on top of a pedestal. A face or comprehensive bodily form is nonexistent in this figure, instead, the only recognizable aspect is its exposed ribcage. The sinuous posture and emphasis on the ribs may have been inspired by the Medieval artist Cimabue’s Crucifix. This reference to a religious work emphasizes Bacon’s purpose as an almost-iconoclastic painter, as he desecrates the sacred form of the crucifixion for Modern means.


cimabue crucifix santa croce
Crucifix, Cimabue, 1265. Source: Basilica di Santa Croce, Florence


His triptych formats, unlike the Christian form of these compositions, are not intended to be read from left to right. Instead, they are meant to be snapshots of scenes from an overarching story. Bacon was largely inspired by cinema, and these tri-part canvases are formatted as such to mimic storyboards or individual pieces of film. The story here is not apparent or easily read—its purpose lies in the harsh emotions drawn by the artist. The gruesome morbidity of these scenes posits Bacon as a horroresque artist, invoking intense emotions of revile and disgust from the audience.


Three Studies of Lucian Freud 

bacon three studies lucian freud
Three Studies of Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, 1969. Source: Christie’s


Besides crucifixion scenes, another one of Bacon’s largest inspirations were images of friends, as seen in this study of the fellow artist, Lucian Freud. The grandson of psychologist Sigmund Freud, Lucian was known for his portraits influenced by Expressionism and Surrealism. Freud and Bacon were friends, but also artistic rivals. This triptych was influenced by a series of photographs by John Deakins that show Freud sitting and reclining on a bed.


lucian freud photograph deakins
Lucian Freud on a bed, John Deakins, 1964. Source: IrishNews.com.


The three panels that make up this canvas are similar in composition and they all show the subject, Lucian, sitting on a wooden chair, caged in by a geometric structure. In Bacon’s typical abstract style, these portraits are hardly recognizable as those of Lucian Freud. The only hint comes from the title which is explicitly stating the subject matter. Freud’s face is morphed, not dissimilar from the men’s faces seen in Three Studies for a Crucifixion (1962). This is ironic, as Freud is well known for his depictions of portraits and the bodily form. Bacon stylizes Freud’s face almost satirically, perhaps emphasizing their differences as artists.


bacon three studies lucian freud center panel
The center panel of Three Studies of Lucian Freud (1969)


There is a lack of a narrative here, calling attention to the idea that these panels are not meant to be read linearly. Instead, the only variation that marks these paintings as individual is the slight difference in the location of the sitter. In each, Freud sits with one leg on top of the other. The left and right panels seem to almost be mirror images of each other, whereas the center canvas contrasts the most as Freud slacks down into his seat. The yellow wall and brown-gray floor tell the audience that these are different moments in time in the same setting.


freud portrait francis bacon 1952
Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, 1952. Source: Tate Modern, London.


Bacon and Freud’s friendship fell apart during the 1980s, most likely due to the competitive nature of their relationship. Still, this artwork became a monumental feat in Bacon’s oeuvre. In 2013, this work sold as one of the most expensive of its time, clocking a going price of $142 million.


Three Studies for a Self-Portrait

bacon three studies self portrait 1979
Three Studies for a Self-Portrait, Francis Bacon, 1979. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


As an art historical subject matter, self-portraits typically worked to portray the artist in a certain light. Portraits depicting the act of being an artist. For example, the self-portrait of Judith Leyster represents the most important aspects of one’s personality. Bacon’s interpretation of himself here still aligns with the common purpose of a self-portrait but reveals a deeper inner meaning to his life and work.


judith leyster self portrait
Self-Portrait, Judith Leyster, 1630. Source: The National Gallery of Art, D.C.


Bacon was quoted to have said that he turned to using himself as the subject as everyone around him kept dying. A number of his friends, his lover, and his nanny all died within a span of a few short years. This time left Bacon in an awkward place as an artist. Therefore, he turned to depicting himself, despite the fact that he loathed his face.


bacon three studies self portrait center panel
The central panel of Three Studies for a Self-Portrait


Bacon’s faces here are as stylistic as those in his other works, though they are more finely modeled than other portrayals. Still, his likeness is quite disjointed and hardly naturalistic by any means. His color palette is slightly more realistic, with flesh-toned pinks, highlighted with whites. However, his face seems to bleed into the background, morphed together with the black that’s surrounding it. This lack of a setting or location creates an uneasy feeling for the viewer. We are standing face-to-face with the artist, with nowhere else to go. The central panel unnervingly stares at us, as we are forced to confront him.


Francis Bacon’s Lasting Influence 

bacon study after velazquez pope innocent x
Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, Francis Bacon, 1953. Source: Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines.


Francis Bacon was an artist who resisted any definitive category. His works are evocative and daunting, impelling his audience to come to terms with the deep meanings intrinsic in his paintings. His Three Studies works, despite the religious implications of their triptych formatting, reveal the inner purpose of his life as an artist. They unveil Bacon’s trajectory onto the canvas and allow the viewer to read them as an autobiography. The unsettling images of Bacon’s oeuvre position him as one of the most iconic artists of the Modern era. His expressionism is raw and forceful, invoking intense feelings from his audience. Bacon stands as an undefinable artist who represented the true spirit of Modernism—the individualistic rejection of the art world.

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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.