Francis Bacon is considered one of the most prominent figures of modern British art alongside his one-time friends Lucian Freud, Leon Kossof, and Frank Auerbach. These artists—who rose to prominence within two decades of one another and are often referred to as the “London school”—were all dedicated painters known for figurative works with expressive brushwork.
Study for Portrait VI belongs to Bacon’s most celebrated series of works. It depicts a “screaming pope,” a startling combination of extreme emotion from an otherwise stoic leader of Roman Catholicism. The painting’s papal subject and composition are based on photographs the artist saw of Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (c. 1650), considered to be one of the finest portraits in art history. Bacon stated that his “pope” paintings weren’t inspired by religion, but instead stemmed from an obsession with photographs of Velázquez’s portrait. This distinction deviates from the notion that an artwork must be viewed in person in order for it to be fully and truly seen. By appropriating an image of a well-known artwork and subject, Bacon anticipated the borrowing of commercial imagery by Pop artists of the 1960s as well as the outright appropriation of images by the so-called Pictures Generation artists including Jack Goldstein, Richard Prince, and Cindy Sherman.
The pope as a subject first appears in Bacon’s work around 1946 in the painting Landscape with Pope/Dictator. In the spring of 1953 Bacon painted his most resolved early pope painting, Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, which is now in the collection of the Des Moines Art Center. Bacon painted eight additional pope portraits over two weeks during the summer of 1953, intended to be the core of his first solo exhibition in the United States held at Durlacher Bros., New York, in the fall of that year.
Study for Portrait VI, one of the first works by Bacon to enter the collection of an American museum, is perhaps the most austere and ghastly painting of the series. In other versions, the pope can be seen actively staring into the eyes of the viewer, grinning menacingly, or writhing in discomfort; he also appears with a fair amount of detail, including arms, a nose, and even glasses. In Portrait VI the pope has been depicted using a minimum amount of paint. His armless torso is constructed with a smattering of brushstrokes and his face appears as if it has been scraped off. This seemingly undead pope has his mouth open, as if he were uttering a deep, ghoulish bellow.
Though Bacon would repeatedly use Pope Innocent X (as well as Pope Pius XII) as a subject throughout the 1950s and afterward, the original nine portraits painted in 1953 remain crucial to the rapid development of Bacon’s oeuvre. In 1961 he painted a series of six new pope portraits in a style much different from the 1953 versions; they debuted at his 1962 retrospective at the Tate Gallery, cementing the artist’s opinion on the importance of these works in his early career.