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  • Writer's pictureRossella BLUE Mocerino

Three studies for the portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne by Francis Bacon

Updated: Jun 19, 2023

Three Studies of Rawsthorne by Bacon

I saw these three Bacon studies of Isabel Rawsthorne at the De’ Visi Mostruosi e Caricature from Leonardo da Vinci to Bacon exhibition in Venice at Palazzo Loredan during February 2023. Although not a triptych per se, it reads to me like a triptych. The figure on the left is looking at the figure on the right and the figure on the right is looking at the figure on the left . If we had a chance to step out of ourselves (the center image) and analyze ourselves, what would we see? A life of satisfaction? A life of dissatisfaction? Fulfillment or longing? The damage done by life on us? All the love in our lives? All the pain of loss in our human existance? How would the sitter Isabel Rawsthorne have seen herself? How did the painter Bacon see Rawsthorne when he looked at her? Despite the distortions in the images, you still recognize Isabel Rawsthorne as the subject of these studies.

torn photograph of Rawsthorne by Deakin
Isabel Rawsthorne by John Deakin

Francis Bacon unapologetically worked from photographs. If you have ever seen images of his work space, you would have noticed photographs everywhere, many of them trampled on, torn and crumpled on the floor. Bacon eloquently tells David Sylvester who records it in the published Interviews with Francis Bacon: “I’ve had photographs taken for portraits because I very much prefer working from photographs then from them. It’s true to say I couldn’t attempt to do a portrait from photographs of somebody I didn’t know. But, if I both know them and have photographs of them, I find it easier to work than actually having their presence in the room. I think that, if I have their presence of the image there, I am not able to drift so freely as I am able to through the photographic image. This may be just my own neurotic sense but I find it less inhibiting to work from them through memory and their photographs than actually having them seated before me.” Bacon was also aware that sitters would not like the distortions he did to them. They would view them as injuries. It suited him better to work from photographic images. Bacon continues in Interviews with David Sylvester: “Whether the distortions which I think sometimes bring the image over more violently are damage is a very questionable idea. I don’t think it is damage. You may say it’s damaging if you take it on the level of illustration. But not if you take it on the level of what I think of as art. One brings the sensation and the feeling of life over the only way one can.” Isabel Rawsthorne, an artist and set designer, was a friend of Bacon and a subject he often returned to. He completed seven portraits of Rawsthorne. Some were based on photographs taken by John Deakin. Although the art critic and curator David Sylvester saw Rawsthorne, together with Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Peter Lanyon and John Craxton as one of five outstanding ‘School of London’ artists who would make an impact on the international art scene, she is mainly known today as a muse rather than an artist in her own right. Isabel was not only portrayed by Bacon but also by Jacob Epstein, André Derain, Balthus, Alberto Giacometti and Pablo Picasso. She had a much bigger impact than what you would expect from a mere model. Rawsthorne posed for these artists as a friend and a colleague. Art historian and curator Carol Jacobi in Out of the Cage: The Art of Isabel Rawsthorne describes her as ‘hidden in plain sight.’


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