Two Long-Lost Bacon’s Pope Paintings to Go on Sale at Christie’s London

For the coming Post-War & Contemporary Art auction next month, Christie’s London presents two exceptional Pope paintings by Francis Bacon, Irish-born British figurative painter. The first one is Head with Raised Arm depicting Pope Pius XII, a painting that has been long hidden for over half a century. Another one is the painter’s final Pope painting, Study of Red Pope, 1962, 2nd version (1971). The work has been kept in private’s hands since it last appeared in Grand Palais retrospective in 1971. The Value has invited a Han-I Wang, specialist of Post-War & Contemporary Art, Christie’s Hong Kong, to share insight on how we can appreciate these two paintings.

Head with Raised Arm. Francis Bacon. Oil on Canvas.
Created in: 1955
Size: 61 x 50.7cm
Estimate: £7,000,000 - £10,000,000 (US$9,434,950-$13,478,500).

Han-I Wang, specialist of Post-War & Contemporary Art, Christie’s Hong Kong

C: Can you tell us about the background of this painting?

H: This picture is by Francis Bacon, titled Head with Raised Arm in 1955. As you may all know, Francis Bacon is often considered as a history painter. He looked into artists such as Velasquez and Rembrandt for his inspiration.

Diego Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X on the left; Bacon's Study after Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X on the right. 

Q: Why did Bacon use the Pope as his inspiration?

H:  Here you have a Pope figure. Bacon was looking at Velasquez’s Pope Pius to use as a base for this picture. And if you know about the time when he was painting in 1955, it was an important time in the history of Europe, where it had the reconstruction period after Second World War. In the painting, he tried to capture that action point. The Pope was as a signifier of what the world’s like but at the same time he was not connected with the reality. The Pope is cast in a frame that has no time, no place, no location, which is very far from anything else.

Pope Pius XII

Q: Anything special about the colour in this painting?

H: So you can see the colour is very austere. It reflected the Pope and the society back in the1950s. Even in the UK, people were still trying to catch up with lives, building up the society. So here Bacon used an organic palette. You don’t see the colour that he normally used for his paintings in the late 70s. This painting captured that momentum of what the 50s was like in London.


Q: What about the composition of the painting?

H: You can feel that Bacon was putting the Pope in a cage-like structure. You can see the bars surrounding him. But at the same time, it is so confrontational because the Pope is so close to you. It is not like he is breaking away from the cage-like structure in the back. The colour was so known for Bacon’s early 50s pictures. Compare to the late 70s, 60s where you see the vibrancy coming from life. The 50s was a time that Bacon was still having academic training, looking back in the history, paintings, catching that motive and trying to search for his own vocabulary. This is a prime example of bacon’s painting in the 50s using the Pope as the main subject matter.

Study of Red Pope, 1962, 2nd Version, 1971. Francis Bacon. Oil on Canvas.
Size: 198 x 147.5cm
Estimate on Request. (£70,000,000/ US$91,490,000)

Q: What’s so special about this painting Study of Red Pope?

H: Here we have a very distinctive, mature style of Bacon, where you see the face is distorted in the way that Bacon was letting the paint, in the structure of the face, taking its own form. Compare this picture with the 1955 one, you can see a natural evolution of his style. He was very into human anatomy. You can see how he was letting the contour of the figure taking its own form, combining with colours and a sense of momentum.

Q: Who's that in the painting?

H: Here it has two figures: Pope Innocent (on the left) and George Dyer (on the right), Bacon’s lover for eight years before he committed suicide in 1971.

Bacon and his lover George Dyer

Q: What do these two figures represent?

H: It’s almost like mortality against infinity. Pope is considered as a ‘human god’. He is coming down to spread the word of Christianity. But here, he is looking into the mirror, who happened to be George Dyer looking at the Pope. So it shows a sense of dichotomy where human struggles against religion, against relationship, against humanity.

Q: What about the lamp in the middle of the painting?

H: The use of lamp here is considered as Bacon himself. He is there to enlighten and to give a message of what the world is about. So he inserted himself to connect George Dyer and the Pope.

Auction details:
Auction house: Christie’s London
Sale no.: 1442
Sale: Post-War & Contemporary Art Evening Auction
No. of lots: 64
2017/9/30|11am - 5pm
2017/10/1|11am - 5pm
2017/10/2|9am - 5pm
2017/10/3|9am - 4pm
2017/10/4|9am - 4:30pm
2017/10/5|9am - 6pm
2017/10/6|9am - 4pm
Auction: 2017/10/6|7pm