Francis Bacon’s Portrait of a Tragic Lover Goes to Auction for the First Time

Since his emergence in the 1940s, painter Francis Bacon has been renowned for phantasmagoric compositions that seemed to rise directly from his hedonistic lifestyle. Bacon had a famously mercurial personality, though some part of that reputation was likely connected to his committing the “transgression” of being openly homosexual in a far less tolerant era. One of Bacon’s recurring subjects was his muse and lover George Dyer, whom he painted obsessively.

Now, Bacon’s first full-scale portrait of Dyer is headed to auction at Sotheby’s, expected to fetch anywhere between $30 million to $50 million at hammer drop.

“Portrait of George Dyer Crouching” was painted in 1966 and depicts the eponymous subject poised naked at the edge of a diving-board-like plank that juts into a circular structure that looks like a cross between a piece of mid-century living room furniture and a well. The figure has three overlaid faces, one of Bacon’s signature elements, giving the effect of frenetic, unearthly movement and animalistic frenzy. Here, however, that overlaying could be interpreted as intimating a deep, inextricable connection between the artist and his lover: Many believe that the artist fused Dyer’s face with his own.

This painting is a gut punch — a vortex of flesh and emotion that lures you in with this almost gravitational pull,” said Lucius Elliott, head of Sotheby’s Contemporary Marquee Sales in New York, in a statement announcing the upcoming auction in May.

“Dyer is simultaneously predator and prey, isolated in the picture frame with a single blood-red eye trained on the viewer, both fearsome and desperately alone,” Elliott continued. “The head alone has an intensity and presence that beggars belief — chops of pigment and scumbled paint delineating a face that stands as one of Bacon’s most arresting and compelling creations.”

The work is compelling enough to have remained in the same family collection for more than 50 years, after being acquired from Malborough Gallery in 1970. Only two years ago, the work surfaced for public viewing at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, part of a Bacon exhibition titled Man and Beast.

The work is being offered without a guarantee, arguably a demonstration of faith that the work will command a high price. Though the pool of buyers who can afford such an opportunity is not deep, portraits of Dyer — there are officially 10 full-sized such paintings by Bacon — are some of the artist’s most sought-after works. Still, this trajectory from museum to auction block might be cynically interpreted as a calculated move to enhance provenance before selling the work for a higher price.

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