Art History  •  Artworks under the lens

Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion: Francis Bacon’s Shocking Masterpiece

Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion is a surreal, emotive artwork by Francis Bacon. Completed in 1944, the piece launched Bacon’s career as one of the most influential artists in post-war Britain. 

The history of Francis Bacon 

Francis Bacon was born in Dublin in 1909. Named after his famous ancestor, the English philosopher and scientist, Bacon had a traumatic childhood. His family were stationed near the British regiment, and Bacon would hear the soldiers constantly practicing their regimes. He has stated that this proximity to violence from an early age influenced his artwork. Sadly he was also privy to violence at home, particularly when his father discovered Bacon trying on his mother’s clothes. It was at this point he was expelled from his family home, and a destitute Bacon was forced to live as a vagrant, travelling between London, Berlin and Paris. 

Bacon, creator of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion

Upon moving back to London, he started working as an interior designer. He was encouraged to take up painting by one of his patrons, the artist Roy de Maistre. In 1933, he showed his first work Crucifixion, which was partly based on Picasso’s The Three Dancers. The piece gained critical attention and portrayed the themes of pain and suffering which would continue throughout his career. Although his success inspired him to hold his own exhibition the following year, it gained little attention and Bacon soon returned to his vagrant lifestyle, destroying most of his early work. 

Bacon’s asthma prevented him from serving with the British Army during WWII. He stated, “If I hadn’t been asthmatic, I might never have gotten into painting at all.” He went back to painting and produced Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion to great acclaim. Bacon held an exhibition at the Hanover Gallery in 1949, producing the Heads series. 

Bacon had many tumultuous relationships in his life, but the most significant was with George Dyer. Fond of using Bacon’s money to fund benders with his friends, Bacon’s art world associates saw Dyer as a nuisance. In 1971 Dyer accompanied Bacon to his art show at the Grand Palais in Paris. This would be the highlight of Bacon’s career, as he was now regarded as Britain’s greatest living painter. On the eve of the exhibition, Bacon and Dyer had a disagreement and Bacon fled their hotel room, only to find Dyer dead from an overdose when he returned the following morning. Bacon’s grief over Dyer’s death inspired him to paint numerous portraits of Dyer, as well as the critically acclaimed Black Triptychs

Francis Bacon on the Orient Express with his lover George Dyer in 1964 
CREDIT: THE JOHN DEAKIN ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES
Francis Bacon on the Orient Express with his lover George Dyer in 1964
CREDIT: THE JOHN DEAKIN ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

In 1973, Bacon became the first British artist to have a major exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He died of a heart attack in Madrid in 1992. 

How did Bacon create Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion?

Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion was painted over a two week period in 1944. Bacon recalls that he was in an alcoholic haze while completing the work, saying “I was in a bad mood of drinking, and I did it under tremendous hangovers and drink; I sometimes hardly knew what I was doing. I think perhaps the drink helped me to be a bit freer.”

 Francis Bacon, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944
Francis Bacon, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944

The work is generally considered to be Bacon’s first mature piece. Each of the three figures can be traced back to Bacon’s earlier work to some degree, through stylistic elements such as the elongated, dislocated forms. Bacon stated that all his work prior to Three Studies was irrelevant and insisted until his death that no retrospective would feature work prior to 1944 (though he was prone to destroying his earlier artworks). 

The triptych is painted on Sundeala boards, which Bacon used as a cheaper alternative to canvas, and produced with oil and pastels. It is believed that Bacon may have been planning to use the triptych in a crucifixion scene, and that the Three Studies were imagined as part of a predella, the scenes at the base of a traditional altarpiece. 

The figures depicted in Three Studies are horrifying in their vague humanness; while they have recognizable human features they are tortured and distorted to an unrecognizable degree. The figure on the left is the most human-like, with a visible nose and ear visible under a mop of hair. It has been suggested that this figure could represent a mourner at the cross. The delineation of the background space forces the viewer’s gaze to the central figure of the triptych. This figure has a disturbingly detailed mouth turned towards the viewer, though its position on its pedestal is ambiguous. The figure is draped in a white cloth, which could be construed as a reference to Grünewald’s The Mocking of Christ. The right hand figure is situated on a patch of grass, with its mouth opened into an inhumanly wide scream. The black lines in the background of each panel work to suggest a confined, constrained space. 

Matthias Grünewald, The Mocking of Christ, 1503 - 1505, a possible inspiration for Bacon's Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion
Matthias Grünewald, The Mocking of Christ, 1503 – 1505, a possible inspiration for Bacon’s Three Studies

Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion and mythology

Although the name of Three Studies references a crucifixion, there are no direct references to Jesus Christ or his crucifixion. Bacon stated that he based the three figures on the Erinyes, or the Furies, which in Greek mythology are referred to as “infernal goddesses”. In particular, Bacon took inspiration from Aeschylus’s Oresteia, a trilogy of Greek tragedies. In Oresteia, the Furies are seen as instruments of justice, hunting down Orestes to punish him for killing his mother. 

In Greek mythology, the Furies are said to have appeared after Titan Cronus castrated his father and threw his genitalia into the ocean. The Furies emerged from the drops of blood that spilled on the land. Their task is to punish crimes by relentlessly hounding and tormenting those who have done wrong. Their description is decidedly witch-like; depending on the author, they are described as having snakes for hair, dog heads, wings, and blood-shot eyes. 

Reaction to Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion

When Three Studies was first shown at the Lefevre Gallery in 1945, it unnerved both critics and the public. Critic John Russell wrote of “images so unrelievedly awful that the mind shut with a snap at the sight of them. Their anatomy was half-human, half-animal, and they were confined in a low-ceiling, windowless and oddly proportioned space. They could bite, probe and suck, and they had very long eel-like necks, but their functioning in other respects was mysterious.” 

Journalist Herbert Furst had similar feelings of revulsion, writing “I… was so shocked and disturbed by the surrealism of Francis Bacon that I was glad to escape this exhibition. Perhaps it was the red background that made me think of entrails, of an anatomy or vivisection and feel squeamish.”

In response to the reaction from critics and the public, Bacon stated, “I’ve never known why my paintings are horrible. I’m always labelled with horror, but I never think about horror. Pleasure is such a diverse thing. And horror is too.”

Love the painting of Francis Bacon? See similar works in Singulart’s Inspired by Francis Bacon collection.

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