Long unseen portrait of Lucian Freud by Francis Bacon leads summer season

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Long unseen portrait of Lucian Freud by Francis Bacon leads summer season
Francis Bacon, Study for Portrait of Lucian Freud, 1964, est. in excess of £34m (in situ). Courtesy Sotheby's.

LONDON.- Unseen for over half a century, Francis Bacon’s magnetic portrait of Lucian Freud is set to lead this season’s auctions in London, when it stars in Sotheby’s "British Art: The Jubilee Auction” marquee sale on June 29. Carrying an estimate in excess of £35 million, Study for Portrait of Lucian Freud is coming to auction for the very first time, having remained in the same private European collection for 40 years.

Painted in 1964, at the height of Bacon’s career, the full-length portrait illuminates the powerful dialogue of friendship and epochal rivalry which would engulf two titans of art history and spur them to create some of their greatest works. The pair had first met 20 years earlier and would go on to share an intense friendship for over 40 years until jealousy and petty rows would ultimately splinter relations forever in the mid-1980s.

Though their visual styles differed considerably, both artists were deeply committed to the human figure, painting each other on numerous occasions over the years. Indeed, for Bacon, Freud would become a recurrent - and one of the most significant - subjects of his work in the 1960s, a period of great artistic confidence during which he produced some of his finest portraits. Focussing on this genre throughout his career, Bacon believed that “the living quality is what you have to get. In painting a portrait, the problem is to find a technique by which you can give over all the pulsations of a person…The sitter is someone of flesh and blood and what has to be caught is their emanation.”

The black and white photographs taken by their mutual friend John Deakin would become Bacon’s primary source material as he painted Freud obsessively over and over again in the 1960s. Of great personal significance, Bacon would keep these photographs with him for the rest of his life, and they were rediscovered torn, crumpled and splattered with paint in his studio following his death.

In this case, Study for Portrait of Lucian Freud is based on a Deakin photograph taken earlier the same year, in 1964, showing Freud sitting on a bed, his arms outstretched, fists clenched, and white sleeves rolled up above the elbows. In contrast to the other large-scale portraits from the period, the painting shows Freud at his most confident, in a threatening pose with chest bare and body open, and his face confronting the viewer with an intense gaze.

“I realised immediately that [Bacon’s] work related to how he felt about life. Mine on the other hand seemed very laboured. That was because there was a terrific amount of labour for me to do anything – and still is. Francis on the other hand, would have ideas, which he put down and then destroyed and then quickly put down again. It was his attitude that I admired. The way he was completely ruthless about his own work. I think that Francis’s way of painting freely helped me feel more daring.” --Lucian Freud

Study for Portrait of Lucian Freud was originally conceived as the central panel of a large-scale triptych, but separated by Bacon into three individual works shortly after it was created. All three panels hung together as part of a travelling exhibition to Hamburg and Stockholm, while the present painting was also shown in Dublin on its own. Today, the left-hand panel resides in a private collection, while the right-hand work belongs to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Study for Portrait of Lucian Freud will not have been shown publicly since this first exhibition 57 years ago, when it goes on view in Sotheby’s New Bond Street Galleries from 23-29 June 2022.

“In this one single portrait we bear witness to a masterpiece, illuminating the deep and complex relationship between two titans of the twentieth century. It is hard to think of two greater artists whose lives and works are so interwoven into the fabric of our consciousness than Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. At the same time both muses and critics for each other, it was their friendship, respect, rivalry and deep infatuation with one another, which ultimately fuelled their unequivocal artistic talents.

Executed with painterly bravura at the height of Bacon’s acclaim, here we see a portrait that pulsates with an intensity, a tension that mirrors the emotions which bonded these two sparring partners together for over four decades. Now, having remained completely unseen to the public for 57 years, this remarkable portrait will return to London as the star highlight of the summer auction season.” --Tom Eddison, Senior Director, Contemporary Art, Sotheby’s

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