Francis Bacon’s ‘Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus’ Expected to Fetch in Excess of US$60m at Sotheby’s New York

Sacrifice, revenge and betrayal are common pivotal themes of Greek tragedies. Inspired by the last remaining complete trilogy of Greek tragedies, the British artist Francis Bacon (1909-1992) transformed these ideas into his work titled Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus. This masterpiece will go under the hammer at Sotheby’s New York’s Contemporary Art Evening sale this upcoming May with an estimate in excess of US$60m (£51.5m). 

Bacon’s Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus, created in 1981

Bacon’s work was inspired by Greek tragedies

Created in 1981, the triptych measures at 218cm in width and 167cm in height. Bacon was inspired by the Greek drama ‘Oresteia’ by Aeschylus which tells the story of King Agamemnon. 

Greek comedies and tragedies have long been the inspiration of artists and writers. The work presented by Sotheby’s originates from a trilogy by the Greek playwright Aeschylus. Born in about 525 B.C., Aeschylus is commonly called ‘the father of tragedy’.  

Aeschylus wrote his trilogy Oresteia in the 5th century BC. It is the only complete trilogy of Greek dramas that has survived. The first play- ‘Agamemnon’, portrays the return of King Agamemnon from the Trojan War. 

The movie ‘Troy’, which was released in 2004, talks about King Agamemnon’s (left) homecoming

Parts of Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus 

The first play begins with King Agamemnon going hunting and killing a doe with a single arrow. The King boasts that his hunting skill surpasses that of Artemis, the goddess of hunting. Insulted, Artemis calms the winds so that Agamemnon cannot sail smoothly on his way to the Trojan War. 

Agamemnon decides to sacrifice his own daughter Iphigenia to the goddess. He finally wins the battle and returns home. However, upon Agamemnon’s homecoming, Iphigenia’s mother, the queen Clytemnestra and her lover Aegistus avenge her daughter by killing Agamemnon.

Agamemnon’s son Orestes has been in exile after his father’s death. He returns home and murders his mother and Aegistus under the command of the God of Sun Apollo as an act of revenge. Furies, the goddess of retribution, follows Orestes to prosecute him. However, Orestes was saved by the goddess Athena and the god Apollo in the end. 

French painter William Adolphe Bouguereau’s work depicting Furies chasing after Orestes

Parts of Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus

Parts of Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus

Bacon’s works are heavily inspired by Greek tragedies, especially by his favourite books ‘The Birth of Tragedy’ and ‘Oresteia’. He had mentioned in many interviews that he read Oresteia over and over again. The line ‘The reek of human blood smiles out at me’ from the play had an enormous impact on him. 

The painter stressed that he did not attempt to create the tragedy in his work but rather ‘the clusters of sensations’ that arouse from it. Therefore, instead of hunting for details of the play in Bacon’s painting, we should try to sense the effect that the play has on Bacon’s emotions. 

The present triptych belongs to the Norwegian businessman and art collector Hans Rasmus Astrup. The masterpiece was purchased in 1984 and has been in the care of Astrup Fearnley Museet in Oslo, a private museum founded by Astrup. In 2001, Queen Elizabeth II visited the triptych in the company of Astrup during her trip to Oslo.  

Queen Elizabeth II paid a visit to Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus in the company of Astrup 

Three Studies of Lucian Freud is the fifth most expensive painting ever sold at auction

Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus will go under the hammer on 13 May at Sotheby’s New York with an estimate in excess of US$60m. The sale will provide significant funding to further support and diversify the museum’s collection through future acquisitions.

Bacon’s personal auction record was set in 2013 by Three Studies of Lucian Freud. The artwork sold for US$142m (£122m) at Christie’s New York to Elaine Wynn, ex-wife of Wynn Resorts’ founder Steve Wynn. Today, the work remains the fifth most expensive painting ever sold at auction. 

Francis Bacon (1909-1992). Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus 

Created in: 1981
Size: 218.5 x 167.5cm
Provenance (organised by The Value): Acquired in 1984 by Norwegian Collector Hans Rasmus Astrup
Estimate: in excess of US$60,000,000
Auction house: Sotheby’s New York
Sale: Contemporary Art Evening sale
Sale date: 13 May 2020