Lucian Freud & Francis Bacon: The Famous Friendship Between Rivals

Artists often develop intense relationships with one another. Read on for the rivalry and friendship of Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, two of the world’s most famous modern artists.

Apr 16, 2021By Jessica Jacob, Certified Anthropologist
francis bacon lucian freud
Francis Bacon (left) and Lucian Freud (right), 1974


While many famous and influential artists had flourishing relationships with others in their field – Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat or Edward Degas and Édouard Manet come to mind, there were also intense rivalries, harsh competitions, and an uncountable number of insults shared between artists. And in one instance, this seemingly contradictory relationship occurred simultaneously between two of the most famous artists of all time: Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon.


The Life of Lucian Freud

Reflection (Self-Portrait) by Lucian Freud, 1985, via The Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin


Lucian Michael Freud was born in Berlin, Germany in the summer of 1922. Freud was the son of Ernst Freud, a Jewish Austrian architect, and the grandson of the world-famous neurologist, Sigmund Freud. His family immigrated to England in the early 1930s and Lucian studied at the Central School of Art in London and the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing in Dedham. After serving in the Merchant Navy during the Second World War, Lucian Freud began painting full-time. In his early days, Freud’s paintings had surrealist influences, but as his style matured his art moved more towards realism


For decades, Lucian Freud painted intense, dramatic portraits of live models by asking friends, family members, and at times even acquaintances to pose for him. Freud’s art was very unique and although he often painted nudes of both men and women, he subverted the overused eroticism of nude paintings, showing bodies in a more grotesque and even at times dilapidated light.


The Life of Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon in his studio in 1980 photographed by Jane Bown, via The Guardian


Francis Bacon was born to British parents in Dublin, Ireland in 1909. Bacon was both the descendant and namesake of the famous philosopher, Attorney General, and Lord Chancellor of England, the other Francis Bacon, who lived in the mid-1500s and early 1600s before his death in 1626. Bacon was raised in both Ireland and England, being tutored at home instead of attending school due to severe asthma. His childhood was turbulent at best, having a shaky relationship with an abusive father and coming of age during the rise of the Irish nationalist movement. The abuse from his father grew worse and worse throughout Bacon’s life, even being whipped by stable boys at his father’s command. 

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At just 17 years old, Bacon was kicked out of his home after his father caught him trying on his mother’s clothing. The young artist decided to travel to Berlin and France, cities much more accepting of his homosexuality. In the late 1920s, Bacon returned to London and began working as an interior decorator as well as a painter. His work caught the eyes of critics and Bacon began selling his art at exhibitions and his popularity steadily grew. 


His paintings distort his subjects, often hauntingly, in a distinctive style influenced by surrealism. In Bacon’s paintings, bold, vibrant colors swirl together to create the familiar shadows and highlights of the human face. His canvases share powerful emotions, both in the faces of his subjects and even in the details of the backgrounds. Bacon turned to the Old Masters for inspiration and strongly believed in upholding the beauty of the medium, saying that his artworks “deserve either the National Gallery or the dustbin, with nothing in between.


The Famous Friendship

Francis Bacon (left) and Lucian Freud (right), 1974, via Fairhead Fine Art website


In the mid-1940s, Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon met and a connection was instantly formed. Although it was kept fairly secret, the two remained friends for decades, speaking nearly every day. Lucian Freud’s second wife, novelist Lady Caroline Blackwood, said that Francis was over for dinner “nearly every night for more or less the whole of my marriage to Lucian. We also had lunch.” Together the two painted, drank, gambled, and often argued, leading Freud to gamble away much of what he owned out of competitiveness, including his car


The pair scrutinized each other’s work fiercely, both tearing the other to shreds and regularly exchanging harsh criticisms. As Bacon explained it, “Who can I tear to pieces, if not my friends? …If they were not my friends, I could not do such violence to them.” Freud went on to publicly call Bacon’s 1980s paintings “ghastly,” years after their relationship came to an end. The artists both sat for paintings of each other, Lucian Freud sitting for Bacon for the first time in 1951. The very fact they wanted to paint one another speaks to the nature of their relationship, Freud said on the matter that “I only paint the people that are close to me,” a sentiment reflected in his other portraits, his children being frequent subjects. 


Head of Esther by Lucian Freud, 1983, via Christie’s


One of Freud’s daughters, Esther, spoke fondly of being painted by him “I felt important to him… in those hours and hours I had so much of his attention,” she said, “he would paint, tell me stories, sing me songs, give me food, and take me to dinner. He makes you feel wonderful. I did feel very close to him.”


Lucian Freud seemed to have used the studio to connect with those in his life, but aside from the hours poured into portraits of his children, he was quite the absent father. In 2013, David McAdam Freud, Lucian’s son, described the late painter as “hardly father material,” saying he and his siblings barely saw their father during childhood.


Freud was also known to have a number of affairs, having at least fourteen children, possibly even double that, with three different women and plenty of additional mistresses. Freud’s relationship with his children remained complicated for his entire life, his son David visiting Lucian on his deathbed while he was terminally ill. Instead of using the limited time the two men had with each other to say goodbye, it was used to paint a series of portraits. This time Lucian was the subject. 



Portrait of George Dyer and Lucian Freud by Francis Bacon, 1967, via Francis Bacon Official Website


While some of Freud and Bacon’s work bear resemblance to each other’s, the two had very different ways of painting. Bacon was fast and spontaneous, depicting more of the subject’s essence than a realistic portrayal of what they look like. On the other hand, while Freud was painting Bacon, the painter took much longer, finally finishing Bacon’s portrait after three months.


In another insistence, Lucian Freud took over a year, a total of 16 months, to finish one painting. The model posed for all but four days during that lengthy period, each painting session lasting about five hours. On a series of paintings of his mother, Freud spent roughly 4,000 hours working. Freud didn’t seem to mind spending so much time on a single artwork, saying that he “feels he’s finished when he gets the impression he’s working on somebody else’s painting.” Unfortunately, Freud’s portrait of Francis Bacon was stolen in the late 1980s and is still missing to this day, diminishing all the work he poured into it.


While the painters shared an outward contempt for each other’s styles, it is clear that they influenced one another’s art. Bacon regularly used a 14 by 12-inch portrait format, focused only on the head of the subject, a medium that Freud later used for portraits of two of his daughters created in the early 1980s. 


The Three Studies of Lucian Freud

The Painter’s Mother Resting I by Lucian Freud, 1976, via The Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin


In 1969, Bacon painted a triptych of Lucian Freud, but shortly after the completion of the artwork, the friendship came to an end.  Apparently, the falling out was a result of Freud’s snobbery and Bacon’s great dislike of it. However, even though the pair parted ways, the portrait still became immensely popular. In 2013, it was sold at Christie’s for $142.4 million, breaking the record for the most expensive artwork sold at auction. The sale beat the previous record of Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream,’ sold at Sotheby’s, by over $22 million. 


In the painting, Freud sits in a wooden chair, a geometric box, and additional wood framing his body. His face is depicted as an almost swirling, distorted, and fragmented mask of colors. Reds and pinks contrast deep blues and greys. In each individual painting, the angle at which the audience sees Freud changes, becoming almost dizzying at times. A grayish-brown covers the bottom half of the paintings, its horizon connecting each painting to each other. A bright pencil-like yellow covers the upper halves, creating an even starker contrast than the colors shadowing Freud’s face. Much like other portraits of Bacon’s, it seems as though a psychological reflection of the subject was painted rather than the subject themselves. 


Three Studies of Lucian Freud by Francis Bacon, 1969, via Francis Bacon Official Website


Freud’s legs are crossed, a different angle of his feet and legs shown in each of the paintings. While the portrait may have expressed some of Francis Bacon’s personal feelings towards Freud, there’s a sense throughout all of Bacon’s paintings that he is painting his own psyche more than that of his subject. 


Although they seemed to hold a great deal of disdain for each other both personally and in an artistic sense, it is clear that the artists had a strong bond. Freud hung one of Bacon’s early paintings on his bedroom wall for many years and said on that matter “I’ve been looking at it for a long time now, and it doesn’t get worse. It really is extraordinary.” Under the surface of insults and bickering, there seemed to have been a deep admiration and respect for each other. 


In 1992, at the age of 82, Francis Bacon passed away from a heart attack while vacationing in Spain. Lucian Freud met his end in 2011 in London, aged 88, due to a years-long struggle with disease coupled with old age. While the peculiar relationship shared between these two artists may have ended decades ago, their legacy both as individual artists and from what they were able to accomplish together remains strong to this day. 


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By Jessica JacobCertified AnthropologistJessica is an anthropologist based in Charlotte, North Carolina. She worked with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte on various anthropological projects ranging from Native American archaeology to biology, ecology, and ethnography. Her research has been published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology and recognized by the Enquirer Journal. Her areas of interest are paleoanthropology, human evolution, art history, ethnography, and prehistoric art.