Enriching the Arts

The Unsettling Art of Francis Bacon

British artist focused on themes and variations

“Three new canvases by Bacon prove him once more to be the most astonishingly sinister artist in London, and one of the most original.” – Wyndham Lewis


Frances Bacon, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944. Oil and pastel on Sundeala board. Tate Britain, London.

Francis Bacon was born in 1909 and throughout the course of his life he gained fame and notoriety as a figurative painter who explored bleak themes using raw and graphic imagery. Beginning to paint in his twenties, he created his breakthrough piece, a triptych he called Three Studies for Figures at a Crucifixion, in his mid-thirties.

During his artistic career, he created portraits of screaming popes, suspended heads and surreal figures. Bacon focused on a single theme or motif in his paintings and explored his ideas through multiple paintings, offering various interpretations, and collecting the resulting artwork as triptychs or sometimes an entire series.

Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion


Francis Bacon’s second version of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, created in 1988.

The triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion cemented Bacon’s reputation as an artist and pushed him into the public eye. Displayed in 1945, the artwork caused a sensation and mixed reactions from the public. The triptych depicts three Greek furies at the foot of the cross.

Crucifixion imagery is explored in many of Bacon’s artworks as a way to examine environments where harm is done to something or someone while others gather around to watch. Bacon commented that this imagery allowed him a unique viewpoint from which to comment on aspects of human nature. He returned to the theme again in 1988, when he painted a second version of the triptych.

Francis Bacon, Head VI, 1949.

Francis Bacon, Head VI, 1949.

1949 Head Series

The scream is another image that Bacon returned to over and over again in his work. One of the figures in Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion has its mouth frozen in an inhuman scream, but the scream surfaces in other pieces of Bacon’s artwork as well. Originally inspired from an image in the 1925 silent film The Battle of Potemkin, which Bacon kept a photo of in his study. Perhaps his most vigorous exploration of the scream occurs in his 1949 Head Series.

Each of these six paintings depicts a figure or a head caught in the middle of screaming, enclosed within a glass case. Many critics cite Head VI as particularly striking. Inspired by Velazquez’s 1650 portrait of Pope Innocent X, the figure wears religious garments, the top of its head missing or obscured as it screams behind glass. Viewers and critics of the exhibition reported feelings of horror and awe when viewing the entire series together. During his lifetime, the artwork of Francis Bacon was often described as horrific, brilliant and indescribable. Check it out this fall to add an extra chill to the Halloween season.

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