Bacon's 1975 Self-Portrait Could Fetch £15m at Sotheby's London Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Self-portraits are often some of the most important works of an artist’s oeuvre. Not only do they reveal the artist’s perception of themselves, but they also embody the most personal feelings and struggles of the artist at the time. Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Sale in London is offering one of the most important self-portraits by Francis Bacon – Self-Portrait 1975, with an estimate of £15m - 20m (US$19m-25m). Completed after the death of the artist's lover, the masterpiece resonates with Bacon's turbulent emotions. 

Francis Bacon. Self-Portrait, 1975

Francis Bacon (right) and his lover George Dyer (left)

The artist's 1970s works are considered the most introspective and inwardly scrutinising phase of his career. These paintings are self-images that emerged from the sudden death of his former lover, George Dyer, in 1971. The artist appears in his mournful paintings with facial features violently mutilated, or with his wristwatch prominently emphasising life’s transience

Francis Bacon. Self-Portrait, 1973

The much propagated tale that the pair met when Dyer broke into Bacon’s house is a myth. Bacon’s relationship with George Dyer actually began in late 1963 in a pub in Soho and was infused with passion, alcohol and drugs. Dyer’s devotion to Bacon was fueled by his admiration for Bacon’s intellect, power, and confidence. From the mid-1960s, Dyer was seen at every gallery opening, and he became Bacon’s muse and served as an escape from Bacon’s over-intellectual mind.

Francis Bacon's Study for Portrait, 1973, is a eulogy to his former lover George Dyer

However, their relationship soon went downhill due to Bacon’s tempestuous manner and Bacon’s increasingly destructive drinking. Once, Dyer even attempted to frame the artist for drug possession in an act of bitter revenge. By 1971, Dyer had already attempted suicide on more than one occasion but saved by Bacon every time. At the Grand Palais in Paris in 1971, Dyer was found dead from a drink and drugs overdose in the bathroom of the hotel where Bacon was to be honoured with a major retrospective.

Francis Bacon's Stelf-Portrait, 1973

After his lover’s death, many of the artist’s close companions passed away one after another. Bacon had once said that the reason for doing self-portraits was because people were dying around him “like flies” and the only person to paint was himself. Although the major work of Bacon’s mourning came to an end in 1974, he continued to produce self-portraits which show a sense of bereavement. 

The present work depicts jumbled letters tumbling from the artist’s mouth

Compared to his works created right after his lover passed away, the present work’s composition is far less abject, the tone is contemplative and metaphorically rich. This is the only example of Bacon’s small portrait studies that features Letraset- jumbled letters tumbling from the artist’s mouth. Bacon was also immensely influenced by literary giants like Aeschylus, James Joyce, Yeats, Proust and T.S. Eliot. Self-Portrait, 1975, emphasizes the significance of literature and poetry for the poet’s imagination. The work’s unique composition echoes the fragmentation and compression that Bacon prized in T.S. Eliot’s work.

Bacon's Study for a Head fetched US$50.4m at Sotheby’s last month

Bacon's Study for a Head fetched US$50.4m at Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Sale in New York just last month at more than double its estimate. The present lot has an estimate of £15m - 20m (US$19m - 25m) and will be the leading lot of the sale. Other highlights include Albert Oehlen's Selbstportrait Mit Leeren Händen (Self-portrait with empty hands) with an estimate of £4m - 6m and Jean-Michel Basquiat's Big Snow that is valued at £3.5m - 4m.

Top three lots

Francis Bacon (1909 - 1992). Self-Portrait

Lot no.: 9
Created in: 1975 (signed, titled and dated)
Size: 35.5 x 30.5 cm

  • Marlborough Fine Art Ltd., London
  • Private Collection, Belgium (acquired from the above in 1976)
  • Private Collection (by descent from the above)
  • Sotheby’s, London, 1 July 2015, Lot 9 (consigned by the above)
  • Acquired from the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: £15,000,000 - 20,000,000

Albert Oehlen (b. 1954). Selbstportrait Mit Leeren Händen (Self-portrait with empty hands)

Lot no.: 15
Created in: 1998
Size: 200 x 144 cm

  • Galerie Bärbel Grässlin, Frankfurt
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1999

Estimate: £4,000,000 - 6,000,000

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960 - 1988). Big Snow

Lot no.: 35
Created in: 1984
Size: 168.3 x 152.8 cm

  • Larry Gagosian Gallery, Los Angeles
  • Armand Bartos, New York
  • Galerie 1900-2000, Paris (acquired from the above in November 1987)
  • Sotheby’s, London, 24 March 1994, Lot 386
  • Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont, Paris (acquired from the above sale)
  • Private Collection, France (acquired from the above in 1994)
  • Dante Vecchiato, Padova
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2001

Estimate: £3,500,000 - 4,500,000

Auction details

Auction house: Sotheby’s London
Sale: Contemporary Art Evening Sale
Date: 26 June 2019