FRANCIS BACON Seated Figure (Red Cardinal)

Wednesday, October 15, 2014
FRANCIS BACON Seated Figure (Red Cardinal)

A major portrait from Francis Bacon's will be one of the highlights of the evening sale of Post-War and contemporary art at Christie’s in New York. Estimate: $40,000,000-60,000,000

FRANCIS BACON Seated Figure (Red Cardinal)

A major portrait from Francis Bacon's will be one of the highlights of the evening sale of Post-War and contemporary art in New York. Painted in 1960, Seated Figure stems from Bacon's total obsession with Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X and stands as an exceptional example of the artist’s painterly practice. It is a rare occasion for a major painting from Bacon's Papal series to be offered for auction, having remained unseen by the public for 35 years before being acquired by its present owner in 1996, Seated Figure (Red Cardinal) is a crowning culmination of Francis Bacon’s renowned Papal series. This major work will be on view in London before being sold at auction in New York on November 12th.

Luxuriant swathes of cream, violet, and aquamarine form the Pope’s features, highlighted by delicate gossamer-like sweeps of pure, bright white that form the folds of his silk cloaks. Against a palette of ruby red, Bacon has situated the figure at the center of the composition upon his ex-cathedra; the geometry of the walls dissolving around him, while his clear eyes remain fixed on the distance. Transfixed and introspective, the enigmatic figure confronts the weight of his exalted position at the center of an infinite and mysterious scarlet void. 

Standing as his most signature paintings, the Papal motif remained one of intense significance for the artist, and would be religiously revisited throughout his career. Variants of this motif reappear in several major works 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 Center, and Study for a Portrait II, 1956, National Gallery of Canada. As with all his Pope pictures, Seated Figure (Red Cardinal) stems from Bacon's consuming obsession with Diego Velázquez Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1650. Over a fifteen year period Bacon returned unfailingly to this subject, with the earliest explorations dating from 1946. Preferring to paint from still photographic images over painting from life, Bacon was inspired by printed reproductions of Velázquez’s work, allegedly even declining 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”. While obviously the result of a very personal response by the artist to one picture, Bacon's violently distorted versions became for many icons of the alienation, disorientation and loss of spiritual and moral certitude experienced by post-war European society. Standing as the conceptual counterpoint to the tempestuous Screaming Popes of the decade prior, Seated Figure (Red Cardinal) presents not a terrified and tormented figure, but a humbled and silent one. 

In Seated Figure (Red Cardinal), Bacon presents the image of the Pope as a tragic hero brought low by the external forces around him. Calling into question the sanctity of the church's supreme potentate, Bacon substitutes Velázquez's official portrait with a candid glimpse of the man behind the aggrandizing guise of his station. Destabilizing his power is the deliberate presence of a self-effacing papal chair devoid of ornate detail; the imposing throne now reduced to a minimalist expanse of color.

The image: Francis Bacon (1909-1992), Seated Figure (Red Cardinal), oil on canvas, 60 x 46 1/2in. (152.5 x 118cm.) Painted in 1960. Estimate: $40,000,000-60,000,000

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Museo Jumex (a private art collection based in Mexico City, Mexico) / David Chipperfield. Image © Simon Menges

Museo Jumex (a private art collection based in Mexico City, Mexico) / David Chipperfield. Image © Simon Menges

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