Francis Bacon’s Seated Pope Up For Auction

A major work by Francis Bacon from the artist’s ‘Papal’ oeuvre will be one of the highlights of the evening sale of Post-War and contemporary art in New York. The painting ‘seated figure’ was created by the British giant of art in 1960, and stems from Bacon’s obsession with Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X; which the artist created numerous studies of over two decades; ‘Seated Figure’ 1960 is one of a series of over 45 variants of the Velázquez painting which Bacon executed throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. Bacon considered the Velázquez painting quite unique and believed his studies never did the masterpiece justice. The painting has remained unseen by the public for 35 years before being acquired by its present owner in 1996. It is a very rare occasion for a major painting from Bacon’s Papal series to be offered for auction.

This important work by Bacon will be on view at Christie’s London before being sold at auction in New York on November 12th. The Papal motif remained one of great significance for the artist, and would be revisited throughout his career. Variants of Bacon’s papal motif reappeared in several major works by the artist between 1946 and 1971, such as Pope II, 1951, Städtische Kunsthalle Mannheim, Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953, Des Moines Art Centre, and Study for a Portrait II, 1956, National Gallery of Canada.

Seated Figure (Red Cardinal) stems from Bacon’s all consuming obsession with Diego Velázquez Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1650. Over a fifteen year period the artist returned repeatedly to studying the work, usually from a paint-stained photograph; with the earliest explorations of the image dating from 1946.

Allegedly the artist even declined seeing the original when he visited Rome in late 1954. “I was haunted by that work, by the reproductions that I saw of it. It’s such an extraordinary portrait that I wanted to do something based on it… I was quite overcome by it and I felt compelled to do what I did. I felt overwhelmed by that image”.

Bacon’s variously screaming or distorted versions of the Velázquez pope became for many, symbols for the loss of spiritual and moral authority in a post-war European society.

When the artist was asked why he was compelled to revisit the subject so often, Bacon replied that he had nothing against the Popes, that he merely sought “an excuse to use these colours, and you can’t give ordinary clothes that purple colour without getting into a sort of false fauve manner”

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